‘Breath of Life’ - watch a sneak preview of a scene from the third play in Sheffield Theatre’s David Hare Season - VIDEO

They are great friends who share the same birthday and live around the corner from each other in south-west London but it has taken the Crucible to get Patricia Hodge and Isla Blair working together...

For the first time, that is, since the early days of their career when they appeared in a soon-forgotten West End musical, Pop Kiss, based on the evergreen farce Rookery Nook.

Now they are engaged in an intense two-hander The Breath of Life, opening at the Lyceum Theatre this week as part of the David Hare season being staged by Sheffield Theatres.

It is set over 24 hours when novelist Francis Beale (Blair) arrives at the Isle of Wight home of Madeleine Palmer (Hodge) to discuss how, despite having never previously met, their lives have been inextricably linked for 40 years.

“My character has been married to a QC for many years, had children and a comfortable life,” explains Blair.

“The husband has been having an affair with Patricia’s character for 20 to 25 years, he’s been living a double life and then he leaves them both for a younger woman. Typical!”

The women are very different, almost opposites, both actors agree.

“Madeleine is more academic,” suggests Blair, “Frances gains a voice when she finds she is rather good at writing and becomes a successful novelist in her middle years.

“She requests a meeting to resolve things in her mind. She hopes it will be cathartic.”

It is not a question of revenge, however. Hodge says: “They are both intelligent enough to know there is nothing to be gained in seeking revenge.They have to discover where each other is coming from.

“Madeleine is not sure of Frances’ true motive and wonders if she is about to become novel fodder. She knows she is going to be written about but in what form?”

Although both have worked with David Hare before, The Breath of Life has demonstrated a different side to the writer.

“What surprises me about David is that he is very good at understanding things from a woman’s perspective,” says Blair.

Has he created likeable women, though?

“You have not got to necessarily like them but try and understand them and what they do,” she says.

“It’s hard to like Regan in King Lear but you understand her motives. Actually I genuinely rather like my character. She’s quite courageous and bright.”

Patricia Hodge, a familiar face on TV playing anything from Margaret Thatcher to Miranda’s mum, says much the same thing: “You always have to like in some way the character you are playing but you don’t have to make them beguiling.

“I don’t think this is a play that asks for certain sympathy. As the story unfolds you realise certain things. I don’t think it’s a play that seeks to apportion blame, it’s about the discovery of truth.

“David is an expert in writing about different facets of women and it also examines the fabric of our times. The play is in a specific time frame when the whole understanding of marriage gradually shifted. A time when an ordinary man could have two women and run a parallel life.

“I think after the Sixties and Seventies there were different rules of engagement. Madeleine is one of those enlightened people from the Sixties and has not really changed whereas Frances has developed later in life.”

Although the politics of that era and how things changed as a result are explored, The Breath of Life could not be described as one of Hare’s political plays, says Blair, who last year was in Stuff Happens, his treatise on the Iraq war which very definitely was.

Isla Blair, whose varied screen career is probably most vividly recalled through a couple of fondly-remembered sexy scenes from The History Man back in the Eighties and political drama The Final Cut, has appeared previously at the Crucible in Six Degrees of Separation.

Patricia Hodge has also been this way before, appearing in the Crucible Studio in The Clean House with Eleanor Bron – “another play about strong women”.

The Breath of Life is at the Lyceum until February 26.