The story is about respected short-story writer Ruth Steiner, who takes a younger writer, Lisa Morrison, under her wing. Ruth eventually befriends the student, and reveals the secrets of her craft and intimate details of her painful past. However, Lisa does not allow Ruth's friendship and kindness to stand in the way of a good story! Lisa evolves from protege to friend to peer and, ultimately, to rival.
The story is told in six scenes, starting in 1990 and finishing in 1996. The play starts brightly enough and has some nice lines, but it does labour a little. However, the story gathers pace and intrigue as it goes on and eventually has you totally gripped and mesmerised with scene six. The sheer quality of the writing and acting in this scene is phenomenal! Scene six is theatre at its best, and it is so good you soon forget about the irritating start and slowness and leave the theatre with the thought who is morally correct? Was Ruth wronged, or was Lisa's actions justified?
The acting is superb by Helen Mirren (Ruth), who is a sensation in the final scene. Helen Mirren returned to the stage after an absence of five years to play Cleopatra at the National last year and has now been persuaded to star in this play, which is a real coup for the producers. She is an actress of immense talent and people should rush to the Haymarket to witness her performance in this beautifully crafted play. I found Anne-Marie Duff (Lisa), is a little irritating at the start of the play, although this may not be her fault, as the director probably asked her to go over the top playing a silly young girl in awe at being in the company of her idol. However, as the play progresses and Lisa matures, Anne-Marie Duff produces a more confident performance, which cultivates in the final scene to one of great presence.
The set design is wonderful. Most of the play takes place at Ruth's apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. The apartment design by John Gunter captures the mood and scene of the play perfectly with shelves full of books, two desks and a nice sofa. It looks very cosy!
The show has received mixed reviews from the popular press: CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH describes Helen Mirren's performance as "Marvellous" and goes on to say that the play " is an involving, intelligent and at times touching drama". SARAH HEMMING of THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Collected Stories is intelligent, interesting, ironic, sympathetic and raises a host of intriguing questions. But it never quite delivers as much as it promises." She goes on to say "Mirren's last scene is excellent." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, ""Helen Mirren playing an ageing Jewish professor really does not work, and her mis-casting only helps Collected Stories drag along rather tediously", BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says, " It is an intelligent, enjoyable two-hander that does not, however, vastly challenge or stretch Ms Mirren." ANDREW STONE of THE STAGE says it is a "finely crafted two hander", and goes on to say "Helen Mirren and Anne-Marie Duff play well together." However he says, " Despite fine craftsmanship on all sides and skilful writing, the emotional register is tepid."
Although much of "Collected Stories" is quite average, it is still a play I highly recommend because the last scene is so thought provoking and produces a terrific performance from Helen Mirren.