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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Breath of Life

A family : a unit of self interest . . . An organised excuse for not caring about anyone else.
-- Madeleine
Judy DenchMaggie Smith
Judy Dench & Maggie Smith (Photo: John Haynes)
The Breath of Life has already taken more in advance box office receipts than any other straight play in London. Why? Because of its two dames of the theatre, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith on stage together for the very first time. One wonders whether they could read the Civil Service Year Book and would people still flock to see them? David Hare's new two hander about women of a certain age, is guaranteed financial success before any critic can see it. Is this healthy? Judge for yourself.

At a superficial level The Breath of Life is very amusing. There are plenty of good one liners but they are only one liners. The substance of the play seemed to me trivial, or shallow. So here are two women both of whom have been used and abandoned by the same man in favour of a young girl and neither of them seems to be very angry or very passionate. Judi Dench is fearfully underused as the mumsy Blackheath housewife who takes up popular, rather than literary, novel writing at a late age. Maggie Smith's more interesting character relies too often on the sardonic or blatantly cynical.

Set in the Isle of Wight, an island of seaside and sailing resorts, off the South coast of Britain, lives the acerbic Madeleine Palmer (Maggie Smith). She is a retired Museum curator and lifelong political activist and civil rights campaigner. She has never been married but was the mistress for fifteen years, we are told on a daily basis, of a London barrister who was married to Blackheath housewife and mother of his children, Frances Beale (Judi Dench). Frances visits Madeleine ostensibly as a research exercise in writing her memoirs, but as is later revealed, it is really an attempt to reach a kind of "closure" on her broken marriage. In the course of an evening, they both recall their encounters with Martin and what they knew about each other.

A recurring theme is an attack on writers as Hare becomes Devil's Advocate. Writers are accused of being parasitical, using every encounter in their writing. Their motives too, are questioned, why do they write about what they do? "To give ordinary things importance, relevance or significance " maintains Palmer. Another theme is the independence, the unavailability of Madeleine to her lover as the secret of maintaining male desire. She had left Martin, then unmarried, as a young woman after a one night stand in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. She had said, "You will never love me enough." He replied, "Love you? We've only just met!" Their relationship is resumed thirteen years later after a chance meeting in London. Martin Beale described his mistress to his wife as " A woman without needs". It is apparent in the course of the play that in fact she has concealed any neediness from him. In an really unconvincing moment Madeleine relates how Martin said "Why did you leave me? Things might have been different." Yeah Right! Get real Girl! These themes might have the makings of a great play but Hare toys with them, skirts over and leaves the discriminating members of his audience unsatisfied, as disillusioned as Frances and Madeleine.

Hare uses Palmer as a mouthpiece for his own Ameriphobia. "Americans. Once the most powerful people on earth . . . now, the most fearful." Martin has left for Seattle with a much younger young woman with whom any sexual relationship has not yet been consummated. I believe that too! Frances explains her "mantra", her recurring statement to Martin, "I deserve something back." "The world is not a court of law, " he would reply.

Maggie Smith has the best of the lines and all the comedy, some consolation for the lack of depth of her character. She is excellent of course. Smith is taller, rapacious as she strides across the stage like a tigress, hunting for more left over curry in the middle of the night. The lovely Judi Dench as Frances is more subdued, maybe she is depressed, she has writer's block, as Madeleine guesses. Dench is softer, more diffident and on foreign territory as the intruding woman.

Howard Davies' surefooted direction cannot raise this wordy play. The set is lavish with real antiques and a wonderful cast iron balcony on the sea front interrupted by green light from the local Bingo Hall.

The Breath of Life is a sad, pathetic play. Two women with an overriding sense of loss. Both, despite Madeleine's avowal to the contrary, defining themselves in terms of their relationship with a missing man. Move on! Find something worthwhile. I could use the same words to Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.

LINKS to Curtain Up reviews of other plays and adaptations by David Hare
Amy's View
Via Dolorosa
The Judas Kiss
The Blue Room

The Breath of Life
Written by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench
Set Designer: William Dudley
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 21st December 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th October 2002 performance at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)
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