REVIEW: The Breath Of Life, Sheffield Lyceum.

Sheffield Theatres' production of The Breath of Life starring Isla Blair and Patricia Hodge
Sheffield Theatres' production of The Breath of Life starring Isla Blair and Patricia Hodge
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Two ageing women who should hate each other meet to discuss the only things they have in common – the man they shared for 25 years and the loss of him.

The barrister who was husband to one and lover to the other has moved on to a younger woman and a new life in America. But the two are frozen in time, still controlled by their love for him.

The play is a conversation between Frances, the suburban, for so long unsuspecting wife who has become a successful novelist, and the mistress, Madeleine. Ostensibly, Frances has arrived at her former rival’s home on the Isle of White like some literary vulture looking for a story to pen. But in fact, she is there to lay ghosts.

You would expect fireworks and talons-drawn insults, but the two intelligent women seem to carry a grudging respect for the other for loving and putting up with the man they knew every fault and foible of - and a shared shame. They both allowed one man to control their lives for years - and still are.

Isla Blair is simply fabulous and very Judi Dench as Frances (I learned afterwards Dame Judi played the role in the West End in 2002). But Patricia Hodge I couldn’t tear my eyes from. Her timing, those little pauses, brought to life the supposedly independent, heroic Madeleine, who deftly hid her neediness to keep her lover.

Clever use of light and movie thriller-esque sound create atmosphere and mark the passage of time as the two talk through the night and while there is humour and also tears, not a lot else happens. To my mind, though, that is the beauty of David Hare’s play.

Neither women get the completeness they crave, just as they didn’t from the man they shared.

They come to some sort of understanding, something approaching closure. But not quite. And the audience leaves the theatre in their shoes, still mystified; disappointed by the fact that life and love is never black and white – and that the greyness is so addictively complex.

Jo Davison