First Night: Fiery finale is too late to make success story

Collected Stories Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
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AFTER THE fiasco of Antony and Cleopatra at the National last year, it would be a pleasure to report that Helen Mirren had found a sturdier vehicle upon which to parade stage talents often put in the shade by her television success. But alas, New York author Donald Margulies' two-hander about the perils of writing fiction based on real life is so creaky that it is upstaged by a fine performance it never earns.

Margulies was apparently inspired by the 1993 controversy that surrounded the American novelist David Leavitt's appropriation of a chapter from Stephen Spender's autobiography. Reconfiguring the story as the bitter culmination of an intellectual friendship between two women, Ruth (Mirren), an ageing, childless author, and Lisa (Anne-Marie Duff), her ambitious protege, who pilfers the former's youthful experience for her first novel, could have made for an absorbing drama. And, to be fair, the last 15 minutes, in which recriminatory questions about the point at which influence ends and plagiarism begins are openly bandied about, have a palpable heat.

But, oh, the wait. There's plenty of time to admire Ruth's book-lined, boho Greenwich Village apartment during an inauspicious beginning, when the author struggles to open a window. And, it feels as though you could write a book in the time it takes for Duff's Lisa to shed her irritatingly gauche, easily impressionable manner, get into print, and grow addicted to the authority that following in her teacher's footsteps brings.

Ruth seems improbably patient with this process, given that Margulies casts her as a catty, imperious type. For most of the first half, Mirren has little to do but put her hands on her hips and roll her eyes.

There are moments when it comes together, and the two performances seem to fire off each other. Mirren hits notes of dark comedy in Ruth's seen-it-all-before put-downs, suggesting the age-old cycle of envy, pride and regret that attend the spectacle of a star pupil rising. And Duff's Lisa matures, sharpening her character's conflicted sense of enthusiasm and suffocation. But it's too little, too late to ever turn this into a success story.

Dominic Cavendish