Review: Good Grief, Oct 8 to 13 at Richmond Theatre
Penelope Keith as June Pepper in Good Grief at Richmond Theatre, October 8 to 13
Keith Waterhouse, just like the husband mourned by the play’s main protagonist June Pepper, was a larger-than-life, convivial character who adored the journalistic life, writes Amanda Hodges
But whilst June’s husband Sam was the hard-living editor of a tabloid newspaper, Waterhouse himself scored a notable hat trick of successes, finding fame as a novelist, columnist and playwright.
He’s perhaps best known still for his wonderfully whimsical play Billy Liar (1959) which saw a young undertaker’s assistant escaping daily monotony through a series of elaborate fantasies and which firmly established Waterhouse’s reputation, something further boosted by the later triumph of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, memorably staged with the great Peter O’Toole.
Good Grief, set in 1990, originally springs from a novel and bears Waterhouse’s characteristic black humour as forthright widow June Pepper grieves for her recently deceased husband. Her thoughts are conveyed to the audience through a verbal daily diary, a compromise with her late spouse who’d made her promise she’d keep some sort of diary for the first year of widowhood, ‘to let it all out’ as she wryly recalls.
Casting the formidable Penelope Keith as the feisty June is ideal as she is perfect in the role. Frank and unsentimental but bewildered by life’s sudden turn of events June seems at a crossroads, on frosty terms with her stepdaughter and unsure how to move on with her life in any meaningful way as she’s still conducting a permanent conversation with Sam in her head. When she spots a stranger wearing her late husband’s old suit the mystery of this acquisition finally galvanises her into action. However, there are surprises ahead as the discovery of some long forgotten letters force her to significantly reappraise the past.
With long stretches of confessional monologue, Keith is to be applauded for a challenging role and it’s one with which many people will identify, particularly the way anger and sadness are so interchangeable at a moment’s notice, normal behaviour given the fluctuations of grief. Christopher Ravenscroft, familiar from TV’s Ruth Rendell Mysteries, appears effectively as the enigmatic Dougie, (or ‘Suit’ as June christens him) and Jonathan Firth and Flora Montgomery offer solid support. Much of Good Grief carries undeniable emotional resonance but notwithstanding Keith’s winning performance the production doesn’t quite pack the dramatic punch initially anticipated.