Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Day At The Theatre

Last Saturday I had a day in London to take in a couple of shows. One of them was courtesy of a friend who got me the ticket for my birthday, the other was me splashing out. I decided that, as I hadn't had a day to myself in the capital for what felt like ages, I would walk everywhere rather than take the tube. It was a hot and humid day so that wasn't one of my better decisions. It took 45 minutes to walk from Victoria station to the National, so praise Jesus they had air conditioning.

The Year Of Magical Thinking

This was the present. I really really wanted to see this when it was on in NYC but the run was too short for me to find time to get over there for it. While I was on my extended stay there back in 2005 was when Didion's memoir was published to much fanfare and fabulous reviews. I remember really wanting to read it but for some reason I still haven't gotten round to it.

Anyway, Didion has now adapted the memoir for the stage, handing over the acting duties to her good friend Vanessa Redgrave. Friends of mine who have seen Redgrave perform on stage in John Gabriel Borkman and Long Day's Journey Into Night have all commented how she is so much better than the rest of the cast, it's like she is in a different play altogether. Thus, a solo piece fits her well. More of that later.

The original book followed Didion holding her life together after, on December 30, 2003, her husband and professional partner of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly at their home while they were having dinner. Compounding her grief, their only child was lying gravely ill in a medically induced coma. The titular thinking is something Didion adopts as a coping mechanism, an "if" thinking, as in "if I can keep her safe, then he'll come back". The book ended on a note of hope, with her daughter Quintana seemingly on the road to recovery.

Technically, the play is Twenty Months of Magical Thinking as it is extended to take in her daughter, and her continued battle with her failing health. The battle was lost, (or as Didion puts it "she let go of the fence") to complications from acute pancreatitis, on August 26, 2005. I swear I read somewhere that Didion was not going to update the memoir when she wrote the play, but I can't find the article. It does of course make sense to update the play but in expanding your canvas, in order to shrink it into 95 minutes, then some of the original material is not going to make the cut. Some of the ardent fans of the book are not thrilled by some of the material Didion has chosen to excise, apparently.

Vanessa Redgrave is pretty incredible in the role. Her American accent was as bad as I was expecting (it was in fact the same mid Atlantic mishmash she had on Nip/Tuck) but it's my only criticism. At 71 years of age, this could be the pinnacle of what is already a legendary career. She has such an intense and mesmerising presence that it is impossible not to listen to every word she says over the course of the play. I defy anyone's heart not to break at the moment the magical thinking stops being enough and Redgrave wails in anguished grief that she "needs more, I need him. I need him back." The monologue is peppered with humourous asides to leaven the tone as well as reminisces of her life with her husband and daughter, so it's not all doom and gloom. The sense of loss and sadness is always there though, and when the play gets to Didion saying a last goodbye to Quintana, it's absolutely wrenching.

The play is simply staged, just one chair and four watercolour backdrops that disappear throughout the play to leave a bare stage. After Redgrave has uttered the play's final words and left the stage, a new backdrop appears. It's this photo:

Which just breaks your heart all over again.

After that I needed some air, so I walked to Selfridge's, just past Bond Street tube station, to treat myself to some girly shower gel and some manly aftershave. Then it was on to play number two.

Small Change

Hmmmm. I only went to see this on the strength of the cast. I have been a fan of Luke Evans since seeing him in Taboo but somehow this is only the fourth thing I have seen him in. And he's really hot. Lindsey Coulson's Carol Jackson was the best thing to ever happen to EastEnders so her being in the play was an added bonus.

I just wish it hadn't been so average. Described as Peter Gill's masterpiece of a play, it is a memory play, a chamber piece with just four characters and no set to speak of, just four chairs. I feel like I've been here before. It tells the story of two men who grew up next door to each other and were best friends before tragedy broke them apart and ensured that secrets would be buried forever and their relationship would remain unresolved.

Sounds fascinating, right? And it would be if it hadn't been told in such a frustratingly elliptical style. It is all over the place, jumping back and forth to tell fragments of the story in no apparent order. At one point, the two boys are laying on the floor looking up at the moon and in the same exchange of dialogue talk about how bright the sun is. It's not done well enough to be obvious that this is the collapse of several years worth of conversations into 20 lines, you just think the writer didn't notice he'd fucked up. Given that the writer is also the director of this production, I'd like to think he noticed.

Unresolved is also the keyword of the night. When the two boys meet again as grown men, the truth of their relationship begins to push its way to the surface but the dialogue keeps jumping back to when they were kids, larking around being told off by their mum and so on. It's an absolutely maddening technique that made me want to yell "for fuck's sake could you just once FINISH AN EVERLOVING SENTENCE?" and I somehow doubt that was the emotion Gill was aiming for. This was an evening that had it not been for the four stellar performances, would have been a total waste. Shame.

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