“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it changes.” So says Joan Didion, played with a rapt and enraptured beauty by Vanessa Redgrave, in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s elegant memoir described by her director, David Hare, as an indispensable handbook to bereavement.

As in New York last year, Redgrave’s performance is one of immoveable emotional power, devoid of sentimentality or cuteness, with not a shred of self-pity in the tale of a woman coping with the death of her husband and creative partner, the writer John Gregory Dunne, followed eighteen months later by the death of their daughter, Quintana, from acute pancreatitis and sceptic shock. Redgrave shines like a light-house, her beam steady and irradiated, her voice a steady rumble of wryly inflected reminiscence.

The book was published before Quintana’s death, although the history of her medical mishaps and hospitalisation is very much part of it. The play makes something more lucid, and more tragic, of Didion’s experience and narrative, and Hare’s production serves it brilliantly. Redgrave wears a simple tunic-style white blouse and oatmeal slacks. She sits on a chair. She allows her hair to tumble free of its clasp only once.

Unlike the crass scenic concrete curtain in Martin Crimp’s The City at the Royal Court, designer Bob Crowley’s neutral grey seascapes fall to ground with a deft musicality, while Jean Kalman’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s subtle soundtrack create a nimbus of transfiguration around the actress.

For the essential truth and greatness of this performance lies in its expression of what we all know. There is life after death, not in a heaven and hell sense, but in the way we celebrate our loved ones even more intensely after they’ve gone.

Didion’s partnership with Dunne thrived in a classic comfort zone of a great New York lifestyle and a house on the beach in Malibu. That style is reflected in the way she writes. Sir Gawain forecast his own death, just as Dunne did, so the couple go to Paris and stare at the stars from the pool on the roof of the Bristol Hotel. Thirty-two days later, he died.

Redgrave has never been finer than she is in this role; the quality of remembrance is as much about a loved one as it is finally about herself. And no-one who sees Redgrave will ever forget her.

-Michael Coveney