Both Keiths hit the mark

Good Grief

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.

Douglas (Christopher Ravenscroft) in his habitat, the pub, with Penelope Keith as June

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.  

IMMEDIATE BOND

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 

Roderic Dunnett

14-11-12 

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