Lifeless production is a criminal waste of two great talents

0Review by David Munro

THERE may be nothing like a dame but in A Breath of Life, at the Theatre Royal, two are worse than nothing.

The Dames in question, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, are two actresses I have admired for a long time. Why they decided to appear in this tedious and witless play presumably only God and their agents know.

Set on the Isle of Wight for no good reason other than a curtain line and in a set, supposedly a flat, but whose proportions would enable it to house all the refugees from Sangratte, they purport to explore the feelings and reactions of a wife and mistress whose husband/lover has left them for a younger woman. After two hours in the Haymarket, I wondered why he hadn't run off years ago.

Presumably, David Hare, the perpetrator of this piece, had thought to ring the changes on the hoary old plot of the dowdy wife confronting and defeating the glamorous mistress by ensuring that nothing like that happened in his plot. Well, he certainly succeeded in that, so far as I could understand it, nothing did happen.

Maggie Smith, as the mistress, has the good lines and Judi Dench, the dull ones. Both make the most of this - Dame Maggie by being amusing, Dame Judi by being boring.

Noel Coward, in Fallen Angels, used a somewhat similar situation to great and very witty effect. This piece, however, makes one think of fallen arches, rather than angels, as it plods its pedestrian way through two acts and four interminable scenes.

While Smith rose superbly to the challenge, I found Dame Judi's interpretation of her role lacklustre and insecure; one got the impression that she did not believe in her character any more than I did.

Was this an error of casting? Dame Judi made the wife a dump and a frump and it seemed inconceivable that a man who had loved Smith for years, and then run off with a young beauty, would ever have looked twice at Dame Judi.

I think that if the play was to have any plausibility, the wife should be feistier than Dame Judi played her, and more of a match for the mistress.

Also, as I forgot to mention, that the wife is allegedly a novelist, so ought to have a greater intellectual power and incisive intelligence, so one can believe she could write a bestseller. When Judi Dench disclaims any intention of using her marital situation as a plot for her next novel, you feel it is not because she wouldn't, rather that she couldn't.

Another dame, Diana Rigg, springs to mind as a possible replacement casting. She would bring more of Medea and less of my dear to the part and give it the backbone that is lacking in Dame Judi's interpretation.

This play is a criminal waste of two great talents and, if I may say so, an insult to the intelligence of the audience. It should be titled not A Breath of Life, but rather, and more accurately, The Kiss of Death.

A Breath Of Life, Written by David Hare and directed by Howard Davies. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design by John Leonard, Costume design by Jenny Beavan, and Set Design by William Dudley. WITH: Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Theatre Royal, Haymarket, W1. Box Office: 0870 901 3356

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