JOYCE MCMILLAN on GOOD GRIEF at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 3.10.12
4 stars ****
WIDOWHOOD IS A BIG subject, and a stunningly unglamorous one; even those who are living through it often prefer not to think about it, particularly on a night out. It therefore speaks volumes for the sheer star-power of the great Penelope Keith that in Keith Waterhouse’s Good Grief, she takes on a play about this very theme, and fills big theatres across the land with audiences willing to take on the subject-matter, if only they can share it with a performer they so trust and enjoy.
Admittedly, Waterhouse’s witty and thoughtful script puts his play a whole cut above the usual cliches of bereavement drama. Keith plays June, the childless second wife of an old-school Fleet Street editor who dumped his first family for her; all the play’s revelations involve the detail of that moment, and its chilling impact on June’s fragile stepdaughter Pauline, now a brittle woman of 30. At first, June talks a lot to her dead husband, in a kind of monologue diary; later she stops, because she is so angry. And meanwhile, June is steadily used, abused, taken for granted, and disrespected as only an elderly single woman can be; although given a steady supply of vodka and a sharp sense of humour, this hardly seems to bother or surprise her.
If the script is well-crafted and funny, though, it’s Keith’s terrific performance as June that lights up the show. Penelope Keith has been a much-admired actress for many decades now. Yet I was left wondering whether she has ever given a stronger performance than she does here, in her comic but heartfelt portrait of this unpretentious, down-to-earth, northern-accented woman, coming to terms with the hard but endurable fact that now her husband is gone, no-one really gives a damn about her; and that quite possibly, he too gave much less of a damn than she imagined, not only about her, but about everyone.