Where Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years was all about a talkative north-west London Jewish household in which barely a thought or an emotion went unuttered, his latest domestic drama at the National Theatre is concerned with the indigenous English, whose pain and joy (though there is not much of the latter here) is no less deeply felt but is communicated with telling silences and soothing proverbs.
Instead of Cricklewood, the setting this time is London's south-west suburbs. It is the 1950s and the focus is on Dorothy (Lesley Manville), a stoic but at times teary war widow who lives with her brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and her deeply unhappy teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall), whose visits to the family sitting-room invariably end with an angry exit and Edwin staring helplessly into space.
The Leigh method of working (in which actors and director forge a play during rehearsals) has ended up with a drama that is episodic and closely observed, though repetitive and light on plot. The pall of Dorothy's grief hangs heavily. There are chirpy visits from her old friends and fellow former telephonists, Muriel (Wendy Nottingham) and "garrulous" Gertrude, superbly played by Marion Bailey with well meaning insensitivity. And David Horovitch's cheery, joker doctor is an intermittent morale-boosting presence. When sherry is taken, Victoria and the soon-to-retire Edwin indulge in a spot of uplifting singing. The duets are unexpectedly tender and superbly sung. Yet there is little else to move in this slow-burn drama.
If Leigh means one day to pair this work with his previous National Theatre offering, Grief could be part of a rich seam of domestic dramas that reveal the family dynamics of different London cultures. But on its own it lacks tension and narrative. And when the climax arrives there is the sense that director and cast belatedly remember that what they are supposed to deliver is a play rather than a family portrait.