Review by Harry Bower
Loss and grief are part of everyday life for millions of people. How we deal with our grief varies from person to person, but one thing’s for sure; it’s usually not straightforward, and everyone handles it in their own way. The way in which Joan Didion dealt with the death of her husband of four decades was complicated by her daughter’s hospitalisation, and subsequent death just eighteen months later. The Year Of Magical Thinking is a masterpiece in storytelling, one woman on-stage baring raw emotion and vulnerability in her effort to both process what has happened to her and how it has impacted her view of death and grief. Following a series of intimate performances in New York, this production arrives at the similarly intimate Studio space at The Other Palace and hypnotises its audience from minute one with its lyrical dialogue and a stunning performance by Linda Purl.
The date is December 30, 2003. Joan and her husband (scriptwriter John Gregory Dunne) sit in their living room around the fire, when he suddenly drops dead. Didion attends the hospital in the ambulance and is assigned a social worker (never a good sign, we’re told). Back at the apartment, a friend arrives. It’s at this point in the hour and a half monologue performance that we begin to understand the title of the show. Clearly an immensely talented, intelligent and grounded individual, Joan is knocked by the loss of her best friend and begins to question reality. What if she flew to LA, which exists in a different time zone. Could John have never died in the first place? What at first might seem ridiculous thoughts suddenly become relatable as the play progresses; how many of us can truly say we’ve not been wrapped up in our own convenient delusions which are preventing us from having to tackle of issues head-on? Naturally, as Joan does, we eventually come to the conclusion that we must let the dead pass on, and begin our own healing process.
Linda Purl is at the top of her game. Having starred in the production’s original West Coast premiere, she has now performed this role in 13 different US locations and is adding London to that list, and boy can you tell. She knows every line of this script as if she and it are one. The inflection and delivery of each syllable is carefully measured and delivered with precision for maximum emotional impact. There is a vulnerability and sensitivity to her performance juxtaposed against a stoic bravery painted across her face in broad strokes. She is a force of nature, knowing the perfect moments to demonstrate restraint or let loose with her character’s truth. Her light touch comic timing completes an extraordinary performance.
As far as the writing goes, there are some truly exquisite moments of crescendo which transcend the stage and touch the audience in ways only truly special pieces of theatre can do. Anyone with even the slightest experience of grief or loss will feel those moments in their hearts and anyone with an empathetic bone in their body will have their heart broken if just for a moment at the visceral pain being played out on-stage. I do think there are short periods in the script which are overwritten; some paragraphs which lose their way and wind up being a diversion of audience attention. The whole piece could be fifteen minutes shorter, most probably, with no substantial detraction from the quality or emotional messages.
Lighting changes are used throughout the piece to indicate a change in thought pattern, a time shift, or just to give the actor some separation between a particular reaction and continuing with the narrative. Said lighting is effective but not subtle, the intensity of the switches often outweighing the intensity of the preceding or proceeding moments on-stage, which was occasionally jarring. The soundscape on the other hand was perfectly pitched. The splashing of some waves on the shore, a siren; effects are used to supplement and compliment the piece aiding the audience’s imagination as we move from NYC to LA, and a corn field in-between.
Any criticism of a performance like this has to be measured against the backdrop of what is surely one of the most powerful performances from any solo performer in London this year. With source material this strong and such a relatable character at the fore, the play had an overwhelming effect on me. The silence at the end of the final scene was not because the audience weren’t sure if it had ended or not, but instead a pause of a few moments while we collected our thoughts, before the plentiful applause began. The real Joan Didion sadly passed away in December 2021. Having experienced what some might describe as an unfair level of grief, she took that and crafted a piece of theatre which will be affecting audiences for the better for many years to come. This production is as close to the perfect version of the text as you are ever likely to see. Intimate, raw, charming and confronting – Didion would be immensely proud.
The Year Of Magical Thinking plays at The Other Palace in their studio space until 04 June 2023. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://theotherpalace.co.uk/the-year-of-magical-thinking/