A good time was had by all at Chichester Festival Theatre last night watching Zoë Wannamaker wax lyrical about the life of 20th century eccentric English poet Stevie Smith.
Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie, a splendid award-winning homage to Palmers Green’s most famous resident, has been revived by director Christopher Morahan for the venue’s Minerva Theatre as the opener to the CFT 2014 season.
Wannamaker effortlessly slips into Smith’s skin, bringing the inimitable celebrated poet vividly to life through a series of witty, honest, poignant monologues.
The play is set in the chintzy, shabby chic living room of a suburban home that Smith shares with her elderly maiden aunt.
The poet recalls her life, starting with being born in Hull, then moving south (as one does if they’re from Hull), until, cruelly deprived of a voice, she can no longer speak about her impending death in 1971 from a brain haemorrhage.
I must admit to knowing nothing about Stevie Smith until last night but my woeful ignorance, and a certain resistance to poetry in general, did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the production.
Smith, born Margaret (Peggy) but burdened with Stevie after a friend’s joke, spent most of her life with her ”Lion Aunt” in the same house in the unfashionable north London suburb of Palmers Green.
She doesn’t care for fashion and the poor star is forced to wear the most ghastly clothes throughout (actually, I remember having a pair of those lurex tights from Act Two, in the 1960s – not something I’d ever thought I’d admit to).
Wannamaker, sporting a severe auburn bob, starts off in a shapeless, cherry red, corduroy pinafore dress and high-necked white jumper with, what appears to be on her feet, the horrendous brown t-bar school shoes I used to force on my children when they were small.
It doesn’t get better. Smith turns up to get a medal from the queen with what looks like an old fashioned bathing hat on her head that she’s picked up in a jumble sale.
Wannamaker’s smoky voiced Smith is cantankerous, independent, depressive, suicidal, lonely and, scarred by her father’s desertion, unable to commit to a man.
It is a tour de force from the actor, who restlessly prowls the set, smoking, and reliving the poet’s life with all its minutiae.
Lynda Baron is compelling as the wonderful character of Madge Spear, The Lion Aunt, who looked after Smith’s needs until, through old age and infirmity, it was time for Stevie, to care for her.
And, lurking throughout, is Chris Larkin, described in the programme simply as “The Man.”
He plays a succession of men in Smith’s life and observes and comments on occasions, but I couldn’t help feel that he is woefully under-used.
There’s one scene, where his character is exasperated at Smith’s behaviour and he pulls the sort of pinched face one does when sucking on a lemon – and, for a moment, he looks and sounds exactly like his mother, Dame Maggie Smith.
The powerful, beguiling, and beautifully acted Stevie runs at The Minerva Theatre until May 24.