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The Theatreguide.London Review

Stevie
Hampstead Theatre   Spring 2015

Hugh Whitemore writes biographical and documentary dramas, the documentary frequently outweighing and displacing the drama. 

Stevie has essentially no plot at all. The poet Stevie Smith is found in her suburban London home, where she tells the audience her life story, pausing occasionally to interact comically with her aged aunt. 

Those biographical facts that can't be put in her mouth are given to a third actor, a non-realistic narrator figure who also doubles as minor characters when needed. 

Smith's story is not especially interesting – she lived most of her life in the family home in outer London and supported her writing with a secretarial job – except to the extent that it explains her mildly eccentric personality and gives insight into her wtiting. 

So the pleasure and success of the evening must lie in the personality of the star performer and the introduction to Smith's poetry. 

Christopher Morahan's production scores well on the first point, less well on the second. 

There can be few performers one can so confidently look to for charm, talent and the ability to surprise with unexpected line readings or characterising touches as Zo Wanamaker, and she is (as she so often is) the primary reason for seeing this show. 

Put by costume supervisor Bill Butler into a series of dresses that manage to look both too young and too big for her, Wanamaker suggests that the adult Stevie remains a little girl pretending to be grown up, a key to the poet's mixture of shyness, social insecurity, and mixture of feyness and solid practicality. 

This is a Smith who is not at all contradictory in making jokes at the expense of middle-class suburbia while being totally immersed in its world and values herself, and who can write poems of childlike delight alongside paeans to death. 

A couple of hours in her company, as personified by Zo Wanamaker, are a pleasure whether she's replaying ritual family jokes with her aunt or letting a few drinks turn her maudlin. 

The production falls seriously short in two areas. First, director Morahan is unable to do much with the few bits of actual theatre his playwright gives him. 

The interactions between Stevie and the down-to-earth and poetry-disdaining aunt played by Lynda Baron should be a stronger counterpart to the biographical monologues, anchoring the play in a solid reality that is meant to be a significant part of the poet's characterisation. 

Similarly the few scenes in which the narrator played by Chris Larkin becomes an old beau or a family friend are skimmed over rather than given the dramatic or comic weight they could carry. 

But the biggest disappointment of the evening is that, despite finding ways to slip in several of Smith's poems, it doesn't convince us that she was a great or even noteworthy poet. 

Smith is one of those poets, like Philip Larkin, known not for a body of work or even for a single poem, but for a single breath-stopping line – in her case, the one about 'not waving but drowning'. 

That poem does of course appear in the play, and it is brilliant. But too many of the others that we hear have the feel either of lightly comic jingles or self-indulgent adolescent gush. 

That may in fact be a valid judgement of Smith as a poet, but it is not one we want a play about her to give, and better readings of the poems in each category might have brought out their virtues more effectively. 

As it is, you are likely to come away with the image of a slightly dotty spinster with occasional flashes of wry humour, who evidently wrote verses of no importance but is in no other way memorable, and of a skilled and charming actress who you're happy to watch playing even this nonentity. 

And I don't think that's all the play wants to be about.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Stevie - Hampstead Theatre 2015

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