Theatre: A life betrayed

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The Independent Culture

AFTER THE fiasco of last year's Antony and Cleopatra at the National, it would be a pleasure to report that Helen Mirren had found a sturdier vehicle in which to parade stage talents put in the shade by her TV success. Unfortunately, Donald Margulies's two-hander is so creaky, it barely supports her vigorous attempts at a fine performance.

Margulies was inspired by the 1993 controversy surrounding American writer David Leavitt's use of Stephen Spender's autobiography for his own fictional purposes. Reconfiguring that episode between two women, Ruth (Mirren), a middle-aged, childless author, and Lisa (Anne-Marie Duff), her Princeton-educated protegee, must have seemed an astute way to avoid a lawsuit and raise the dramatic stakes.

The showdown that follows the publication of Lisa's first novel, which blatantly pilfers the other's most sacred youthful experience, does have an explosive charge. Awkward questions about the point at which influence ends and plagiarism begins are batted back and forth in a poisonous struggle that merges a wrangle between writers with the familiar slug-out between older and younger generations.

But, oh, the wait, while the bonds that are to be betrayed are forged. You could write a book in the time it takes for the suburban Lisa to shed her irritatingly gauche manner, get into print, and grow addicted to the celebrity that following in her teacher's footsteps brings.

Ruth seems implausibly patient with this process given that she is also cast as a crotchety, imperious type. For most of the first half, Mirren has little to do but put her hands on her hips and adopt eye-rolling, stern looks that recall Germaine Greer on Late Review, while doling out smug advice. Hardly any writing seems to be done. Instead, lame fictional efforts are read (Lisa's first effort, Eating Between Meals, all about bulimia, has lines that make you want to barf) and unremarkable confidences exchanged. Howard Davies' directorial restraint lends some grandeur to the chat, but with scant wit in the text, the play lollops rather than marches forward.

There are moments when it comes together. Mirren hits notes of pathos and unexpected comedy in Ruth's seen-it-all-before putdowns, visibly swelling with the mixture of pride, envy and regret brought on by the spectacle of a star pupil rising up and away. Anne-Marie Duff's Lisa finally matures, sharpening her character's conflicted sense of enthusiasm and suffocation. You almost believe her plea that she was only obeying her tutor's orders to write from real life. But it's too little, too late, to turn this pulpy effort into a success story.

To 12 Feb, 0171-930 8800. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper