Stevie*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: March 16, 2015 in Theatre

stevieMany of us have lingered for too long at the Palmers Green traffic lights on the North Circular, without ever taking much notice of the place. Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play (the title role originally played by Hampstead’s current MP) is set entirely in that leafy North London suburb, in the home of writer/poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971). In Christopher Morahan’s handsome looking revival, Simon Higlett’s spacious set – an interior abounding with floral designs looking out through sash windows to mature trees – represents all the values of comfortable middle class living in the 1950s/60s, a haven for the eccentric spinster Smith (Zoe Wanamaker) and her beloved aunt (Lynda Baron). The living room conversation extends to nothing more profound than debating whether to have beans or carrots for dinner, but this cosy, mundane domestic setting gives Smith her secure base for observing the World. Wanamaker assumes a haunted, quizzical look, chain smoking and dogged by the slight frailty and fatigue of a woman weakened by childhood tuberculosis; occasionally quick-tempered, often under a cloud of depression, she exudes a sadness and an acceptance of mortality which indicate that her most famous line, “not waving but drowning”, relates to herself; yet still she is unable to hide her girlish glee when being feted as a celebrity or attending an audience with the Queen. This is a magnetic performance by Wanamaker. Baron too is a delight and Chris Larkin (son of another famous Smith) is equally effective as “Man”, a role combining narrator with various characters in Smith’s life. Whitemore has the luxury of being able to incorporate much of Smith’s own poetry and prose into his script, adding to its literary quality and throwing light on a complex women who worked as a secretary for a publishing firm by day and thanked them for allowing her the time to write. Surprisingly, it is claimed that every word that she wrote was published and Smith was anything but a recluse, which leads to one of the biggest problems with Whitemore’s play – that it tells only part of the story and leaves us wanting to understand Smith better by seeing how she connects with the wider World. Another related problem is that all the notable incidents in Smith’s life take place offstage and are then told to the audience, leaving the play with hardly any dramatic power.¬†Wanamaker’s wonderful expressiveness is pure theatre, but, beyond that, this is little more than a pleasant storytelling recital – the perfect radio play.

Performance date 10 March 2015

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