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The Year of Magical Thinking; the lyttelton theatre, london ***** reviews and previews.

Byline: philip fisher

FORGET The Year of Magical Thinking, this is The Evening of Magical Theatre.

For 90 minutes, the mesmerising Vanessa Redgrave keeps the audience totally gripped as she unreels a story so painful that the tears that she shares with her audience are undoubtedly real.

London is gradually beginning to believe that a single actor can work in an 800-seat theatre without disappearing. This play premiered on Broadway, where the phenomenon is more common and having won its actress a Tony nomination and Drama Desk Award, Nicholas Hytner had the foresight to import it, with every chance that the actress will win awards here, too.

With an English actress and creative team led by director Sir David Hare, it feels at home, even though the protagonist's accent is pure American.

Miss Redgrave, white hair tied back and bedecked with Tiffany gold jewellery, inhabits the mind of septuagenarian film and novel writer Joan Didion, whose "life changed in an instant" on the penultimate day of 2003.

Over dinner, her husband and fellow writer John Gregory Dunne collapsed and died. That is the dark starting point for a period of just over a year that she names recalling her anthropological studies, The Year of Magical Thinking. Ancient tribes used to believe in an "if" period when the dead might still be resuscitated or resurrected.

The tragedy of loss was exacerbated as the couple's daughter Quintana was, at that time, in a coma, having suffered from a rare disease that delayed her father's funeral until she could attend. Within three months, she was mortally ill again, giving her mother guilt pangs.

However, this play is about more than constant tragedy. In recollection, we follow Miss Didion and the family from happy, hippy days at Malibu in the 1960s through successful times to maturity and relative old age, generally in snapshots and soundbites that become progressively more allusive as the play develops. At the same time, despair and denial give way to gradual acceptance and hope for a future once the grieving has been completed.

Everyone knows that Vanessa Redgrave is a great star but, even so, to see her moving an audience like this with a performance as near perfection as can be imagined, is remarkable.

The show runs until July 15. The box office number is 020 7452 3 000.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 2, 2008
Words:390
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