"Who or what is Stevie Smith? Is she woman? Is she myth?"In his 1977 play Hugh Whitmore attempted to answer the humorist Ogden Nash's question, helped by an acclaimed performance from Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, the quirky, profound poet who lived in Palmers Green, North London with her maiden aunt. Jackson's performance, with that of Mona Washbourne as her 'lion aunt', were immortalised on screen the next year.
It has been a good few years since I saw the film but every so often a certain scene would jog my memory, in particular Smith's visit to Buckingham Palace to receive the Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969 and having to make painful small-talk with the Queen.
Christopher Morahan has directed a subtle, nuanced production that doesn't completely overcome the drawbacks of Whitmore's style of playwriting; similar to his Portland Spies play PACK OF LIES which was narrated by a number of characters direct to the audience, STEVIE is narrated by The Man who also plays various men in Smith's life as well as Stevie who tells the story of her life to her aunt. I couldn't help wondering why this was as surely her aunt would know it having lived with her most of her life!
However where Whitmore is wholly successful is in weaving Smith's poetry into his play so they seem to come directly from her life and really lift the play. I cannot be the only one who left the show itching to read more of her work. Smith seems to float in and out of popularity but she deserves to be reclaimed as one of the greats.
Complementing Wanamaker's performance is Lynda Baron as her redoubtable 'lion aunt' Margaret, barging around the house making tea or dinner, only stopping to have a glass of sherry and a flick through the local newspaper. Less pixieish than Mona Washbourne, Baron came into her own in her final scene when the aunt appears suddenly changed, losing her robustness to become a shuffling querulous invalid.
Less successful was Chris Larkin as The Man but I suspect that was more due to the writing than any particular fault with the actor. I suspect if anyone was asked to play a waspish, literary queen that dipping into a Maggie Smith impression would be top of your acting choices so it was a bit jaw-dropping to see Larkin do it as he is her eldest son.
But it's Zoe Wanamaker's show and from the start she gave an idiosyncratic performance as the hunched, scuttling Smith, barking her lines in a slightly lower register, turning on a sixpence from biting wit to pathos. She brought Stevie Smith, ungainly in her odd clothes and awkward posture, to life and as I said earlier, there were times when I felt that Wanamaker disappeared completely within her. She also beautifully suggests at the end of the play the tragedy of the encroaching brain tumour which robbed Stevie of her ability to write or speak.
Simon Higlett's stage design also contributed to the show's overall success, the detailed representation of the Palmers Green house on one side slowly breaking up and drifting away to seemingly mingle with the tall trees beyond.
STEVIE plays until April 18th at Hampstead Theatre and is well worth a visit. By the way how ironic that the production should transfer from Chichester to Hampstead where the original Stevie, Glenda Jackson, has been the Member of Parliament! I wonder if she has been to see it?