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Review of ‘The Breath Of Life’

By Roxana Graves

The Breath Of Life

Alessandra Perotto and Wendy Jardine in ‘The Breath Of Life’

I came away from this performance thinking. I like that. Despite that, it had been an exceptionally warm day and so it felt rather tropical in the bar. Arguably not the best day to imagine being inside a cold, slightly shabby flat on the Isle of Wight. Yet imagine I did.

Frances travels to the island specifically to see Madeleine, the ex-mistress of her ex-husband Martin. Their affair, (I hesitate to call it that, it being so much more than the kind of relationship that is usually described as an ‘affair’), had lasted for 25 years. Martin and Frances are now divorced and he has moved to Seattle to be with a much younger woman. Nevertheless, she is unable to move forward or come to terms with her husband’s past relationship with Madeleine. Frances, a successful author of popular fiction, seeks out the former mistress, saying she would like to speak to her about a new book she is writing.

When a successful middle-aged man abandons his loyal, supportive wife and mother of his children for a much younger, prettier model we don’t ask “why?”. The answer is in the question, isn’t it? How much more interesting, how much more threatening the mistress of 25 years, an older mistress even, to add a little more intrigue. Wendy Jardine’s portrayal of Madeleine was compelling and utterly believable, except in age. Wendy is not a woman in her mid sixties. This would be my only criticism, if I must have one, and I am loath to have one because this was surely an excellent production from new director Mike Weaver and a sterling choice of play.

Frances had suspected an affair for years, but decided to turn a blind eye. On one occasion Martin even introduced them to each other at a function. Some years later she confronts her husband and he does not deny it. Nor does he offer to end the relationship. Even after her suspicions are confirmed she stays with him, she’s angry but there has been too much investment to walk away with nothing, and I don’t mean financially. She unwittingly becomes the facilitator of her own betrayal.

The action takes place inside Madeleine’s living room overlooking the sea and essentially this play is a conversation between the two women. There is nowhere for the actors to hide. With two incredible performances from Wendy Jardine and Ali Perotto, there was no need to. I appreciated the set more because it was so unobtrusive, the sound and lighting too, was nicely understated. Well done Paul Ackroyd.

We meet Madeleine first, very at home in her flat where she lives in what appears to be self-imposed isolation. She is immediately an interesting character, intense, full of rage and resentment, but also very clever, quick-witted and actually quite funny. In contrast Ali’s delivery, very appropriately, is tentative with just a hint of disapproval. After a short time it becomes apparent that Martin had all his bases covered with the Frances, Madeline combo. He no doubt enjoyed the home comforts provided by his wife – she was the apple crumble sitting soothingly in an Aga. Nice, but it can’t compete with marshmallows toasted on Madeleine’s roaring open fire.

It is understandable that Frances would have questions. Who wouldn’t? Madeleine too is curious, she agreed to meet with her, after all. We soon realise that Madeleine does not suffer fools gladly, she is a woman of great perception. Her life has been guided by her passion for her work as a curator and her political beliefs. A difficult family history is alluded to but we have only to guess where and when the fire in her belly was first lit.

Intellectually, Frances is no match for her rival, who sees through the rather thin excuse of writing a memoir or similar. Madeleine rather grudgingly gives Frances some of the answers she wants. During their conversation, which is at times tense and uncomfortable, we discover that Martin and Madeleine had met some fifteen years earlier in the 60’s in America. No sooner their relationship begins than Madeleine leaves, with no word. She has fallen for Martin and cannot risk a broken heart, believing it is inevitable that their relationship will not be what she wants it to be. Her vulnerability is exposed, in some ways she is far more ‘needy’ than Frances. A chance encounter fifteen years later (by which time Martin is married) leads instantly to the start of a relationship.

We are not given the whole story by any means, and I shared the anxiety of Frances the following morning, they were soon to part company with so much more yet to learn, having only been drip fed bits of information Madeleine was willing to part with. I was left wanting more, which is a huge compliment. Many congratulations cast and crew, a marvellous production.