3:49pm Thursday 27th September 2012
By Bruno Clements
Penelope Keith is at the centre of the emotional storm in Good Grief, a new adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s comic novel which premiered in the Theatre Royal, Bath, on Tuesday and continues until Saturday night.
Her character, June, is struggling to come to terms with the death of Fleet Street editor husband Sam Pepper, a man credited with a 60 cigarettes and a bottle of whisky a day habit.
She follows his advice to keep a diary which, in the form of an occasional monologue, she addresses to him as her life coping with widowhood unfolds.
June quickly runs into The Suit (Christopher Ravenscroft), a man she takes too because he’s bought one of Sam’s old suits from Oxfam.
As June, Keith has a convincing enough presence - and Northern accent - to distance herself in the audience’s mind from those famous TV roles.
And while her voice was a little quiet at the start, as the comic and dramatic temperatures rose she settled into the role and provided a gripping performance after the interval.
June’s relationship with The Suit provides most of the lighter moments while a sub-plot revolving around Sam’s daughter from his first marriage, played by Flora Montgomery, and the weasley former colleague Eric (Jonathan Firth) sheds light on part of Sam’s character June has never had to deal with before.
This eventually twists and turns into a key part of the drama, which revolves around the Peppers’ house and a nearby pub.
There are enough surprises and laughs in the play to keep the audience on board and no doubt the scene-setting first half will gain some pace in future performances.
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Theatre Royal, Bath
The role of grieving widow June is perfectly suited to Penelope Keith, who delivers her wry observations on life, death and funerals with acerbic wit and a gently nuanced progression through loss to a new beginning. She could even be Margo from the old 70s TV sitcom The Good Life pronouncing on long-suffering hubby Jerry’s demise– if only Jerry had died a self-indulgent, alcoholic tabloid hack.
But this play, based on the late tabloid hack Keith Waterhouse’s novel Crisis, What Crisis, has little of the good life about it.
June discovers firstly that being a widow is not much fun, and ultimately that the husband she loved was actually a selfish manipulative bounder. The moment of this discovery is the point at which anger frees her from his control, issued not from the grave, but from the urn.
The dead husband has told her to keep a diary after his death to help her through the days, although he didn’t say it was to be in writing. So she talks to him, railing against his choice of song and poem at the memorial, getting sloshed, using a naughty word and trying to get laid, all the while talking to him as though he was indeed not dead but in the next room..
Booze and mint chocolate Aero keep her going – and then The Suit, once owned by her husband, now to be found on the back of a chap she follows into the Duke of Clarence for a half of Pale Ale. What follows is a series of vignettes – some of which are funnier than others - designed to chart the stages of grieving.
Christopher Ravenscroft is rather good as The Suit, a bit of a loser who latches on to June and fleeces her for a red van. But the dynamic between them is never quite believable enough for what ensues – there’s a lengthy sketch in which he describes how to change a fridge door from left to right opening with all the boring tedium of watching paint dry.
The action picks up during the second act when skeletons come tumbling out of the cupboard. Then Penelope Keith’s portrayal of June rising from her grief in righteous anger is both finely played and extremely moving.
But the whole production seems just a tad dated and the jokes a bit flat.
While Jonathan Firth plays Eric, the sleazy tabloid scribe, to odious perfection, and Flora Montgomery is creditable as the self-centred abandoned daughter Pauline, it is Penelope Keith’s performance that holds the whole together.
Good Grief offers an evening of quiet fun that owes much to the delight of watching a performance by Penelope Keith.
It runs until Saturday September 29. Call the theatre on 01225 448844 or visit http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/ for times and tickets.
Posted on 27th September 2012
posted on October 10th, 2012
Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from his own comic novel, Good Grief follows June Pepper as she adjusts to life after the death of her husband, Sam. Newly widowed, June is irritated by the way others treat her, either with kid gloves or with distain, and is sick to the back teeth of having to ask for ‘just one’ of everything. Step-daughter Pauline is fussing while smarmy Eric from Sam’s newspaper keeps turning up with an ulterior motive, and the only place she can find solace is in the local pub talking to a man who is wearing her late husband’s suit.
Set in the 1990s, the play does not feel at all dated, dealing as it does with universal themes surrounding bereavement, grief, and starting again later on in life. The central role of June is played to a tee by Penelope Keith, who manages to eke every bit of humour from the darkly comic script. In an emotive second half soliloquy, June poignantly relates the panic she feels when she realises all the things she has never had to do herself, like renewing the house insurance. Deeply moving and powerfully resonant, Keith’s delivery makes this moment the jewel of the piece.
Where the play lacks, however, is in the development of the other characters and the unconvincing ending. Despite being excellent in his oleaginous role, Jonathan Firth’s Eric is never given space to reveal his true motivation, while Pauline (Flora Montgomery) is only afforded a few lines to put over her backstory, making her revelations seem almost glib as there is no space for an emotional journey. Christopher Ravenscroft is wonderful as ‘The Suit’, and cultivates a compelling relationship with June, however this is resolved suddenly and in an rather unfulfilling way.
Perhaps too much has been cut from the second act, or perhaps it is just written that way, but the final moments felt rushed and uncertain, which was a great shame given the quality of the rest of the piece. Coupled with an overly complicated set, these factors prevented Good Grief from achieving its full potential, but nonetheless it is an engaging, amusing piece of theatre which is extremely enjoyable and with flashes of true brilliance.
Funny thing, death, says reviewer Liz Vercoe.
First, a declaration of interest: my husband Bill Hagerty, a friend of the late Keith Waterhouse who penned this play, contributed the programme note about the Fleet Street days referred to in this witty slice of life after death. Days when Fleet Street men attempted to transform themselves into dutiful fathers and husbands for two weekend days, having survived 120 hours with the mixture of printers’ ink and booze pumping through their veins. Days when it started to be noticed that newspapermen often die too young. But you don’t have to be in the publishing business to see what’s good about Good Grief.
Here Penelope Keith is June, whose newspaper editor husband Sam has died at 63. Returning home from the company-sponsored memorial service some while after his death, she finally faces life without the giant personality who, it becomes increasingly clear, had given purpose to her life for the past 25 years.
Unnecessarily gone are Penelope Keith’s famous To the Manor Born vowels, now replaced by a mixed northern and Somerset burr, possibly hinting at a regional couple thrown closer together among hard-edged Londoners. Knowing her voice so well, as we all do, means that, initially, this is oddly distracting. A bit like the Queen putting on a Liverpudlian accent.
But how she speaks is irrelevant as she masterfully demonstrates the emotional roller coaster that follows death. The administration of alcohol (a brilliant drunk scene), the venturing back out into the world alone, anger, doubt, misdirected passions, black humour and, eventually, sharply defined realism. She carefully teases out the comedy to make the small, quiet, sad moments so much more more poignant.
It wouldn’t really matter whether her husband had been a tycoon in newpapers, pharmaceuticals or computers, her reactions are totally recognisable as are the reasons Sam fell for her in the first place.
She is ably joined by Flora Montgomery as her irritating step-daughter Pauline, who has her own rich sub-plot as an abandoned Daddy’s girl with a bone to pick, Jonathan Firth as Eric, a devious and typically devisive executive on Sam’s paper, and Christopher Ravenscroft as Dougie, aka “The Suit”. Ravenscroft is Peter O’Toole-ish in his languid tones and manner and gives “The Suit” a plausible niceness that turns June’s head.
Between them these four under the direction of Tom Littler manage, in a couple of hours, to conjure up a brilliantly multi-layered observation on human life. For this production set in 1990, shortly after the break up of Fleet Street proper and in the midst of the last recession, designer Simon Kenny has cleverly devised a comfortable l920s-style executive home as the main set, neatly concealing the snug at the local pub which appears as required.
It’s really worth catching this play to see Penelope Keith in impressive action, filling out June’s character with such humour, compassion and self-awareness. Keith and Co’s substantial helping of comfort food next travels to Canterbury. Cheltenham, Guildford, Cambridge and Malvern.
October 10, 2012
After barely surviving the memorial service for her late husband - with an organist who played the wrong tune and a speaker who seemed dyslexic until June found out he had forgotten his reading glasses, June is ready for another glass of vodka. She declines the sandwiches stepdaughter Pauline is preparing and orders her to get the vodka bottle from the bedroom where June is keeping it in reach in case she needs a swig. Vulnerable and angry due to her recent loss, June resents being treated like an invalid and makes her feelings known. June’s late husband Sam instructed her to keep a journal of her feelings to help her cope with the situation. June prefers a mental diary which she shares with the audience, mostly to comic effect. Pushed into a parallel universe by her traumatic experience, June has little patience for Pauline’s “minor” marital problems but she manages to fake interest - only we know the truth.
When June meets a man in a pub who is wearing Sam’s suit, she immediately projects her feelings for her dead husband onto him, secretly calling him “The Suit.” Because Dougie aka “The Suit” is skimp, she buys him drinks. Dougie seems nice and helpful and offers to repair her fridge door. June gladly accepts his kind offer. Meanwhile Sam’s former colleague, a smug and insensitive fellow, informs June that he has letters in his possession that Pauline wrote to her father when she was a child. He acts as if the letters were top secret and makes a big nuisance of himself. The situation escalates when Pauline moves in.
Penelope Keith is giving a tour-de-force performance in this very funny and, at the same time, very true depiction of grief. Aptly directed by Tom Littler, she gets splendid support from Jonathan Firth as the smug and undiplomatic Eric, Christopher Ravenscroft as the sweet and gentle Dougie and Flora Montgomery as the snooty and unhappy Pauline.
When a loved one is gone, a multitude of emotions ensues. The grieving process is ephemeral for some but endless for others; however sufferers of loss have in common the want and need for a sense of normalcy once again. June Pepper (Penelope Keith) returns from her husband’s funeral not really knowing what to do with herself besides live off vodka and one chocolate bar a day. Her fussing step daughter (Flora Montgomery) and one of her husband’s ex colleagues (Jonathan Firth) offer their services but June wants to be left to her own devices, until she meets a gentlemen in the pub (Christopher Ravenscroft) who has coincidentally bought one of her late husband’s suits from Oxfam. A journey of revelations, realisations, and restorations follow this chance meeting and we watch as June confronts her grief, mostly with a dry sense of humour, one day at a time.
Late writer Keith Waterhouse used a clever device to tell the story in the form of a vocal diary entry. This affords the audience an introspective glimpse into June’s emotions and thought processes, and makes the story relatable and inclusive. The two sets are the aforementioned pub and the more complete and realistically decorated living room and upstairs balcony of June’s house. Not much imagination is required from the audience in terms of setting and this allowed more focus on the character developments.
Penelope Keith is a timeless actress who effortlessly adds warmth and humour to an otherwise upsetting and morbid circumstance. Her lines were delivered very naturally and she was engrossing to watch and listen to, making her a perfect casting decision for such a predominant role. Supporting her was Flora Montgomery, who gave a believable performance as the multi-dimensional Pauline- a step daughter who on the surface is collected and particular, but underneath is hiding heartbreak that extends back to her childhood. Jonathan Firth adds just the right amount of harmless corny charisma, and Christopher Ravenscroft is, similarly to Keith, a detailed and competent performer.
The ending felt rather abrupt, but there was a surprising twist that reminds us that grief can make us do the unexpected and unusual. Overall ‘Good Grief’ was an enjoyable and thought provoking piece- Waterhouse obviously has an intricate perception of a range of human emotions, and director Tom Littler has done an admirable job of bringing the story to life on stage.
Penelope Keith is just fantastic in this touching, bitter sweet comedy!
The opening of Good Grief sees her character June returning from her husband’s funeral. As a newly bereaved widow we are taken on a journey of hope and courage as we watch her relationship with both ‘The Suit’ (Christopher Ravenscroft) and her intrusive step-daughter Pauline (Flora Montgomery) progress in life after her husband.
The audience are very much a part of the show from the beginning, with cleverly written dialogue to ensure they are given just the right amount of back-story, initially in order to catch up with the characters, but also to quickly understand what is being presented to them. With this in mind, June delivers most of her speech to the audience, meaning the play is largely a monologue with small pieces of dialogue from supporting characters throughout.
Tom Littler’s direction is incredibly effective; presenting monologue speech to an audience for such great lengths of time can be very tricky to get right. Littler has utilised the space well, with clever use of levels provided by a wonderful set from Simon Kenny. Penelope Keith is never left static for too long.
The setting for the play is in June’s “much modernised Edwardian house” and a nearby pub. With a sliding set, the scene changes are smooth and transitions are accompanied by 90’s pop songs. The brilliant design allows actors to be in one scene and instantly be transported to the next without having to move pieces themselves. It also allows over-lapping scenes to occur, in which the main focus is in the house but we are able to see the other cast milling around in the pub, which was highly effective.
As June, Penelope Keith is engaging and endearing, but also on show is her well known comic timing and a lovely blunt, sarcastic edge to her delivery. We are allowed to laugh with her but equally feel her pain when her grief becomes more real towards the end of the play as certain facts come to light. As ‘The Suit’, Ravenscroft is vocally charming. This combines with his chirpiness and underlying off tones to show his character further developed by subtle mannerisms.
Flora Montgomery as Pauline, portrays wonderful varying relationships with the rest of the cast. She shines particularly in a scene where she is reading letters she wrote to her father when she was a young girl. Jonathan Firth as Eric is slimy, smarmy and everything one expects of a high flying newspaper exec.
Overall, this production of Good Grief by Keith Waterhouse is simply wonderful. Theatre fans should do their best to see it on its short run here which ends on 3rd November. Book now before it is too late.
Malvern Festival Theatre
KEITH Waterhouse died three years ago, aged 80. He was the Leeds-born half of the unrivalled Waterhouse-Willis Hall scriptwriting team, who in the 1950s and 60s scripted Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay and before him, Albert Finney), the hit children’s film Whistle Down the Wind (with Hayley Mills) and the Stan Barstow adaptation A Kind of Loving.
Later, alone, Waterhouse wrote his take on the lovable journalistic sot (‘a world class carouser’) Jeffrey Bernard, immortalised as a prating barfly by his fellow Yorkshireman Peter O’Toole.
The northern strand runs through his work – like Alan Sillitoe’s Nottingham background through his – as a signal feature. His four-man play Good Grief, based on his best-selling novel and currently touring to Malvern, reads a bit like an Alan Bennett script: pithy, well-calculated, chock-full of chucklesome one-liners and often enough - Waterhouse being a first-class journalist - right on the nub.
However it is a Lancashire accent that Good Grief calls forth from Penelope Keith, taking on the play’s lead role. Initially that’s mildly disconcerting: neither manor (to which born) nor Surrey (of which Miss Keith was High Sheriff in 2002-3!). Is she well cast? Such is her commanding stage presence, changeable personality and very dexterous timing that yes, she is.
Once Keith settles into the accent she (almost) maintains it. It’s not overbearing, just there, and colours the moodily muttered confidences of June Pepper, who has just lost her drunken editor husband (yes, another journalistic sot) Sam, and is striving - angry, hurt and bewildered beneath the bravado - to work out what best to do with widowhood (‘They should have a school for widows’).
Keith’s moves teeter between the elegant and clumsy, as if negotiating clutter, but always in character. Her assurance suggests she is someone who has moved others: and indeed, she herself has directed several times. Though the experienced director Tom Littler effects few surprises and exercises little invention with the entrances and exits, or indeed the onstage business, her entries are always slick; more so, perhaps, than her departures.
Into June’s life emerge three others: her step-daughter Pauline (Flora Montgomery), a pushy, self-centred but essentially normal young twenty-something; a tiresome, Machiavellian newspaper office stunted rising star (Jonathan Firth) who may or may not be the filly’s bit of stuff (he isn’t); and a delicious curio, Douglas (Christopher Ravenscroft) whom June collects on periodic lonesome visits to the pub (The Clarence Arms, I think it was), who gradually begins to look like a confidence trickster.
Later hauled by June up towards bed (‘I suppose a fuck’s out of the question?’), a non-event abruptly terminated before it begins - he is then lit upon rogering the daughter, revealing himself a not-so-gullible rogue of a different hue. By now a full-flung situation comedy (semi-hilarious but now less convincing), Good Grief acquires a whiff near the end of Entertaining Mr. Sloane; Joe Orton stemmed from the same Fifties-Osborne era that Waterhouse and Hall represented
The farcical sexy bit is deliberately unpersuasive. Desirable though Ravenscroft – some may remember his ultra-pure Henry Tudor in the RSC (Anthony Sher’s) Richard III; he also surfaced in Branagh’s film of Henry V - might seem as a shy beddable catch for mother or daughter, but it’s breathtakingly unlikely with either. Ravenscroft’s beautifully invented character - is a bumbling figure. Maybe it’s the pub that suggests it, but he’s a dead ringer for Ford in RSC’s updated The Merry Wives of Windsor: Nicky Henson played it gloriously opposite Peter Jeffery - an exact contemporary of Waterhouse’s - in a similar garb and manner.
Hesitant, more than a bit lost, Douglas is amazed to be talked to. Ravenscroft has a clutter of old geezer gestures, never overstated; all the joints – knees, shoulders, hips – have a wonderful incipient ancientness: widowed, not quite lonely, gently potty, he looks a candidate for Last of the Summer Wine.
Two curious, but focal, details are that he has purchased June’s husband’s suit from Oxfam – a joyous and embarrassing coincidence milked for its comedy (hence she dubs him ‘The Suit’); and has a misguided notion that he can reemploy himself as a handyman, a skill for which he patently, in a slapstick offstage exchange about a delinquent fridge door, has no aptitude.
Jonathan Firth. recently a Prince Hal for the BBC, and with more TV – he’s something of a period drama heartthrob - than stage credits (but you wouldn’t think so) looks even here like a Henry V, rather than the saintly Henry VI, whom he recently played for the RSC (the latter would have fitted Ravenscroft like a glove: rivalling, perhaps, the legendary, David Warner performance. Queer that Warner has ended up a Hollywood villain).
Firth’s character is a spasmodic bit-part, rather underused: he is possibly a bit too young, although the pertly delivered actual words well suit the whippersnapper he concocts here. He does the suave, smug, intrusive character of Eric perfectly; his brother Colin would have done no better. The doomed young offspring of Ralph Fiennes in the 1992 film Wuthering Heights, he looks and feels more like Heathcliff himself. Happy to push at the door, humiliatingly worsted by Keith’s furious, outraged June, he always bounces back, armed with jabbing, wildly circling gestures and a ghastly, cynical smile.
Flora Montgomery (the daughter, Pauline) delighted without ever hogging the stage. Pauline’s initial ‘concern’ for a woman she essentially despises sets up some of the best ironies of the play in the opening scene with the increasingly irritated, instantly bitchy June. (June has no child, note: here in part originates her needless, unfair, gut resentment of Pauline.) Both have brief moments of inaudibility – Keith at the start, Montgomery at the point where a crucial revealing letter to the dead man is read out in tandem - not to best effect.
But the mostly retired, appreciative Malvern audience didn’t mind one jot – they laughed at all the right points, and only one hearing aid went off, so maybe it was just me. It was interesting, in Simon Kenny’s designs for an updated setting in the present, to see the relative (black) skirt lengths: June’s just, but scarcely, below the knee, for a woman her age (what age?); Pauline’s almost a long dress. Both looked stylish.
Waterhouse’s text is crammed full of nuggets, but the essential ones are embedded in the caustic exchanges that Keith – a bit of a naïve cad in her youth, which is how she prised him from Pauline’s mother (‘then, I was the other woman’) – has with her erstwhile husband of some 25 years-plus, Sam Pepper.
The artfulness of this Sam/silent interlocutor device is that it allows Keith’s June to talk to the audience. We become him – and this creates an immediate bond from the stalls with the grieving widow – or not so grieving (or both) onstage. The effect is not unlike Meryl Streep addressing Jim Broadbent (as late husband Denys Thatcher) in The Iron Lady. The wit of Penelope Keith’s almost stand-up one-liners supplies almost the whole of the play’s delight: witness the vodka she stores (a toper like her late spouse) ‘on her bedside table’ (the brandy is in the bedroom cupboard); or the Aeros she squirrels away daily (‘It used to be Rolos, but they’re habit-forming’). Wonderfully prickly, too: ‘I’m not on my own, Eric’; ‘It’s not like measles’; ‘It’s a bereavement I’ve suffered, not a stroke’ (that’s certainly Bennett: both are rooted in Oscar Wilde, and probably Restoration Comedy too).
June bemoans fangly instructions on utilities (usually ‘in Japanese’); and ‘slavering tabloid hacks’, a role her husband, in her mind, narrowly avoided, preferring drink: this being a propensity shared with the author himself and his contemporaries, like Victor Mulchrone of the Daily Mail (Waterhouse had a 1950s twice-weekly column for the Daily Mirror). How does one know this? One of the treats of this event came with it: Bill Hagerty’s beautifully crafted, knowledgeable and funnily celebratory programme note on Fleet Street of that era: he was the Mirror’s Deputy Editor, and then edited The People; so he should know.
Simon Kenny’s set characterfully alternated between June’s spacious though not lavish home and the pub, the latter rolled effortlessly out from below a movable stairway (there was just one hitch, which briefly introduced an unplanned black-clad character to the cast rearstage; had Waterhouse been there to notice, he might have used it) and neatly boxed in from above. It supplied three main entries, and Keith’s astonishingly deft costume changes, effected between them, suggested an on-the-ball, proficient touring backstage crew, overseen by Simon Bannister and Suu [sic] Wernham.
Three understudies (Freya Dominic; Julia Goulding; and Grahame Edwards for both male roles: his age might have better suited the Eric character, whose promotion Sam has spiked) were hauled onstage momentarily in almost (almost insultingly) non-existent roles: a pity Waterhouse (or director Tom Littler, unostentatious but endlessly competent in a safe Peter Hall kind of way), didn’t think to give them something more.
There must be talent there: Dominic, Keith’s understudy, plays Shakespeare, Euripides and more than a touch of Wilde, including for the Birmingham Rep; Goulding, just a year into a growing career, has done Shakespeare (including Othello), Miller and Chaucer. Edwards is a Toby Belch, Claudius and Prospero. I think even I could have thought up some extra work for them. Barmaid and Guests in the pub? It didn’t work.
The music (Simon Dennis) seemed a bit of a mishmash, and could have been much cleverer. Given what June says about the Fleet Street funeral (presumably at St. Bride’s, the journalists’ church), Parry’s ‘I was glad’, or its organ introduction, seemed utterly inappropriate: as if a wedding piece had been frantically grabbed off the hook. (Why not Wagner or Mendelsssohn?) Some of the remaining sound score made allusion; much of it insipid. The offstage sounds were unbelievably underused and undermiked. But Tim Mascall’s Lighting Design worked well enough: a bit bland for the house interior (perhaps accurately so) but well aimed where necessary, and with some use of bald whites to point up certain moments.
Whether Waterhouse and Hall were in the auditorium with us in spirit, one can’t say; but maybe they were. This artfully staged Good Grief was a fine tribute to a writer who was up there with the best. To 17-11-12