| Dames Judi Dench (top) and Maggie Smith
London, Oct. 16: In a double act that might have been dreamed up in heaven, Britain's two most imperious theatre dames, Judi Dench and Maggie
Smith, went head-to-head last night on the West End stage in a two-hander, The Breath of Life, written for them by David Hare.
It was the first time that the pair, the most influential British actresses of their generation, have walked the same stage for more than 40 years.
Robert Fox, the producer, did not place a single advertisement for the play. Dames Judi and Maggie did not have to suffer a single press interview (an ordeal they both detest).
The prospect of an opportunity to judge which of the two Oscar winners is our greater national treasure had the tills jingling with no help needed.
Tickets for the 10-week run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, are virtually sold out. The advance box office take of £2 million is said to be a record for a straight West End play.
The pair are old friends. Born within three weeks of each other at the end of 1934, they supported one another when they were widowed recently. Beverley Cross, Dame Maggie’s second husband, died in 1998 and Michael Williams, Dame Judi’s husband of 30 years, died last year.
On the billboards, Dame Judi appears first for the simple fact that she comes first in the alphabet. In turn, Dame Maggie has taken dressing room number one while Dame Judi is upstairs in number two. “It’s all been very amicable,” Fox said.
Only onstage is there a whiff of grapeshot. Dame Judi plays Frances Beale, a novelist, and Dame Maggie a retired museum curator, Madeleine Palmer, who meet on the Isle of Wight to discuss the man they once shared.
The actresses became friends when they appeared together, and shared a dressing room, in two shows at the Old Vic in the 1959
Assistant News Editor