THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1
THE INGREDIENTS promise something unforgettable. An extraordinary memoir about the nature of grief, written and adapted for the stage by one of America’s great prose writers, directed by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, and performed by one of the country’s finest actresses.
Yet although The Year of Magical Thinking, by the journalist Joan Didion, directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave, was an acclaimed sell-out when it appeared on Broadway last year, here in London it appears to be much less than the sum of its parts.
Didion’s bestselling book about the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, became a mustread in America, a comforter for those who have lost the love of their life, and a warning for those who have yet to experience that pain. As Didion says: “This is going to happen. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.”
In Didion’s case the details are shockingly simple. She and her husband were just about to have dinner in their New York apartment, when John died of a heart attack. One moment he was talking, the next he wasn’t.
Then, 18 months later, Didion’s daughter Quintana died after a long illness. The book was already out when that happened, so Didion updated her monologue version to include her daughter’s death.
Both book and play are gripping pieces of work. Their poignant power lies in the author turning on herself the forensic, dispassionate gaze with which she spent a career reporting the lives of others. It is a little like watching a pathologist carry out her own autopsy.
The magical thinking of the title is an anthropological term used by Didion to describe the flawed logic of the grieving mind, which is convinced that the dead, if certain rituals are observed, will return, and that the dying, if certain thoughts are avoided, will live.
For most of Hare’s uninterrupted 90minute production, Redgrave sits in a wooden chair, her grey outfit matching Bob Crowley’s minimalist set — a series of grey-washed canvases that dramatically fall away at intervals.
But all this restraint is undermined by Redgrave’s surprising flamboyance, with sudden gesticulations and flourishes. The sense here is one of text serving actress rather than the other way round. (Tel: 020 7452 3000)
SMALL CHANGE Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
FOURCHAIRS and four actors are the main ingredients in Peter Gill’s beautifully acted revival of his own 1976 play. Gill’s protagonists are two workingclass Cardiff boys (Matt Ryan and Luke Evans) and their mothers (Sue Johnston and Lindsay Coulson).
The picture painted is one of a postwar community where fathers are absent and mothers live in unfulfilled terrace-housed loneliness with their children.
Coulson’s Mrs Driscol confesses the guilt she feels for loving her abusive husband but not her children. Johnston’s stoic Mrs Harte is her emotionally repressed neighbour and confidant.
But the defining relationship in Gill’s play is between the two sons. Matt Ryan’s Gerard is the sensitive, self analysing foil to Luke Evans’s down-to-earth tough-nut Vincent. Each tells his version of the relationship from an adult point of view. And it is in the telling that Gill’s lyrical and poetic play makes its mark.
The advancement from boyhood through adolescence is suggested by Gill’s actors with a remarkable fluidity. Teenage boredom is portrayed physically with a petulant flounce, and advancing maturity by their increasingly sophisticated language.
The story that emerges between the two boys is one of unrequited love, or at least of two different kinds of love. But while Gill’s production is hugely impressive and boasts four quite beautiful performances, it is an evening almost devoid of tension. ( Tel: 0870 060 6624)
“I’VE BECOME a death bore,” laments widower Judge Christopher Osgood in Rosemary Friedman’s play. Poor Osgood (Graham Seed) is left to grapple with the lonely reality of life without his dear departed wife. Well, not that departed. Her ashes and urn take pride of place on the writing bureau in his living room.
And not that lonely either, for as well as being cheered up by psychiatrist neighbour Marcus (Malcolm James), Osgood is courted by three women. There is his intellectually stimulating tenant, Sally (Gráinne Gillis), Lucille (Maggie Hallinan), who believes the way to man’s heart is through his stomach, and Jo (Sonia Saville), a fellow judge who attempts to seduce him into marriage with invitations to her country estate — and by taking her clothes off.
Friedman writes sensitively about grief, but clumsily when it comes to deriving comedy from darkness. Set pieces rely on that hoary old device — characters walking into Osgood’s living room unannounced. So director Ninon Jerome struggles to impose credibility. ( Tel: 0870 033 2733)
AN ELIGIBLE MAN New End Theatre, London NW3
Vanessa Redgrave is inappropriately flamboyant in Joan Didion’s memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking