Stevie_2901107b‘Stevie’ by Hugh Whitemore

at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

16th May, 2014

 ‘This Englishwoman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind’

Shamefully, the only memorable Stevie Smith poem, I remember, and fondly, is the notably haunting Not Waving but Drowning  from which come these lines which define her: ‘I was much too far out all my life’.

Hugh Whitemore’s play ‘Stevie’ commemorates the witty, melancholic and thoroughly unconventional poet who was quintessentially British, and whose poetry has dropped out of fashion. The biographical drama from 1977, tells the story of Smith’s two lives: the London art scene and suburban private life of monotony.  Through a hybrid of conversations and monologue, we are given a stylised, yet vivacious portrait of this enigmatic poet. Chronologically, we track her from the age of three to her death aged sixty-nine when a brain tumour robbed her of the power of speech and Death, her ‘friend at the end of the world’, brought her final coup de grace.

Born Florence Margaret Smith, Stevie Smith was rescued by a beloved ‘Lion’ aunt into a ‘house of mercy’. Known as “Peggy” by her family, the nickname, Stevie, was adopted when friends noticed her resemblance to jockey Steve Donoghue when out riding her horse.

For me the star of the evening is Zoe Wannamaker as the poet – the perfect actress for the role as lines from Stevie Smith’s poetry slip out lugubriously and effortlessly as part of the unfolding narrative. The poetry has a jaunty sing- song, nursery rhyme tone which seems deceptively simple but leaves a sting in the tale. Wannamaker is very adept in adopting Smith’s capacious style with an old fashioned diction. Her concentration is intense as she wanders gawkily across the stage with a transparent fondness for drink, cigarettes and oddly, death.  Strangely, Smith even thought about suicide at the age of eight. We are immersed in wonderful anecdotes such as ‘no bosom and no behind’ attributed to snobbish ladies trip out. My irritation, though, came from the many audience members who seemed to suffer from indiscriminate laughter usually at Smith’s less grounded reflections on social behaviour. At times too, Wannamaker milks lines (which, at times, could have been more acerbic) for cheap laughs -the age of deference is not quite dead. Audience reaction can’t be regulated, and no one would want it to be, but where the comic and tragic (for want of a better word) are closely interwoven, certain members of an audience will always give emphasis to the comic as opposed to the other, for by so doing they rationalise the other out of existence.

Lynda Baron is superb in the role of the no nonsense, ageing aunt; her frailty towards the end is palpable. Chris Larkin fills the clinically delivered and often unsatisfying role as ‘The Man’ for the various men in the tale including the rejected fiancé. Smith’s rejection on the grounds that she was cut out for friendship and not marriage, exposes her distrust of emotions.

Simon Higlett’s cosy, chintz, suburban set reflects attention to period detail in the Palmers Green living room. The costumes, too, enhance the sense of place – Smith’s shapeless, sexless red pinafore and the aunt’s McCall-patterned floral dress ‘like a seedpacket’.

Even though Stevie Smith gained some fame in the late 1930s, performed on the radio she has sadly lapsed into obscurity.  Hopefully, this production will help revive some interest.

Aside: I am looking forward to July when the main Chichester Theatre reopens after a £22 million refurbishment.