THE DEEPEST GRIEF OBSERVED
Pretty much everyone agreed – here and on its West End transfer- that the American David Lindsay-Abaire’s GOOD PEOPLE was a masterpiece, with its defiant, vigorous lead played by Imelda Staunton on barnstorming form, and a dryly humane treatment of class divisions putting it streets ahead of most recent British attempts on the theme. Now, this time under director Ed Hall, we have a slightly earlier play by the same author and there will be more division. Some may find blandness in its understated naturalism and want more firecracker emotional outbursts. But I honour it, and suspect that anybody who has lived through a deep and shattering grief, and seeks commonality of understanding, will do the same.
The playwright admits that he wrote it when he first became a parent, to face down the worst fear. Here Becca and Howie lost their five-year-old Danny in an accident eight months earlier: torpedoed by grief, with no blame to attach, they are treading separate paths of sorrow, perilously unable to converge. In restraint and in growth, Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill play it faultlessly. We first find Becca, a smart college-educated Sotheby’s girl turned full-time Mom, carefully folding two or three years’ worth of little Danny’s dungarees and T-shirts for the charity shop. I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s Lady Constance in King John:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and own with me…
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…”
But no such lyrical expression comes from Becca. Controlled, patient, tensely sensible, she has to listen to her rougher-edged sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) peering at her refined desserts – “Is that a pie?” “A torte” – and recounting a bar-room brawl with a woman whose boyfriend has – oh yeah – made Izzy pregnant. But she refuses the offer of Danny’s beautifully kept clothes because it would be “weird” if her child wore them. The bereaved mother flinches. Meanwhile she is gradually stripping the house of reminders, and wants to move. But Howie takes the other track, cherishes marks of his son, and wants the comfort of embraces and lovemaking which his wife refuses: even a shoulder massage is too dangerous, it is the very tension holding her together. So the father sits alone watching the last video of Danny; the mother upstairs in the dead child’s room. Ashley Martin-Davis’ scrupulous, intimate set underlines their division: she aloft, he far away alongside the stage in a tiny den, kitchen and living-room their arena of conflict. Penny Downie, as brash as Izzy, is the two women’s mother; a deus ex machina is Sean Delaney as the high school senior who drove the car when the child ran out, and who bravely needs to meet them for his own peace.
He does, finally, and we get the metaphor of the rabbit-hole, the wormhole in the universe down which we all peer for a better, parallel universe. That meeting is just about the only event: most of the play is finely judged and beautifully nuanced conversations over months. The grandmother torpedoes Izzy’s birthday with a laboured discussion about whether the Kennedy family was cursed, and whether Onassis died of grief, in order to challenge Becca’s attitude: Howie’s hurt emerges in a demand to let him have his exiled dog back home because Granny is overfeeding it.
Bathos, absurdity, foibles and class clashes are allowed into the mix; strong laughs as well as painfully attentive silences.
Familiar side-effects of grief are admitted: the irritation of comparison (the family also saw an adult brother’s addiction and suicide, and Becca won’t accept that her mother’s loss is like hers. There’s the classic offstage friend who can’t bear to get in touch so the grieving family is unfairly forced to make the running; the other kind of wrong friend, who enjoys “sharing” grief but doesn’t assuage it. Emotional outbursts are brief and deliberately curtailed, as in real life. It is subtle and truthful and wise, sad and funny and beautifully paced and acted. The resolution it offers is not insultingly simplistic, only a small hope that one day you can crawl out from under the grief and just carry it “like a brick in your pocket”.
Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 5 March