The hugely anticipated world premiere of David Hare's The Breath of Life, starring Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, opens tonight (15 October 2002) at the West End's Theatre Royal Haymarket, following previews from 3 October. The play's limited - and long sold-out - season continues to 21 December 2002.

The production marks the first time that Smith and Dench (pictured), the two grand dames of British acting, have starred together in the West End, though they did meet early in their careers in the RSC ensemble at the Old Vic and have appeared together in two films - A Room with a View and Tea with Mussolini.

And theirs are not the only big names to be involved in The Breath of Life. Director Howard Davies - whose acclaimed revival of Private Lives starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan swept awards both here and on Broadway earlier this year - directs. Amongst Davies' numerous honours are the Award for Best Director for the past two years running, this year for Private Lives and previously for All My Sons.

In The Breath of Life, Dench and Smith play two women whose lives are interwoven in ways neither of them yet understand. Madeleine Palmer (Smith) is a retired curator, living alone on the Isle of Wight. One day, Angela Beale (Dench) - a popular novelist whom she's met only once before - turns up at her door. The progress of a single night comes fascinatingly to echo the hidden course of their lives.

Hare apparently wrote the piece with Smith in mind. The writer's many other plays include Skylight, The Blue Room, Via Dolorosa, The Secret Rapture and Amy's View which starred Dench at the National, in the West End and on Broadway.

The Breath of Life is designed by William Dudley and produced by Robert Fox.

- by Terri Paddock