Pros: A gorgeous set and a tip top master class in comic timing form Zoe Wanamaker.
Cons: A smidge low on the ground when it comes to plot or any go get ‘em action.
Stevie is a very comfortable play. No more, no less. I felt like I could I have been curled up, slippers on, with a wedge of cake and a nightcap, being well and truly at home with the narrative. The lady sitting next to me must have felt the same because she spent the entirety of the second half snoozing on my shoulder.
This was, at least in part, deliberate. Simon Higlet’s set is an enviable Palmer’s Green living room. Books piled invitingly ad hoc; amongst a piano, a chez long and plenty of velour. The most beautiful part of the set is the back wall: symmetrical windows overlook copious trees. The trees then grow into an imprint on the wallpaper. Gathered branches and leaves start floating off, directionless and trapped. The whole living room invites the audience into Stevie’s claustrophobic story.
As for the lady herself, Zoe Wanamaker and her pretty accomplished set of skills create a sufficiently weird Stevie Smith. A woman whose life was so full of turbulence and instability that she withdrew herself from the norms of suburbia and the middle-class boundaries.
Wanamaker’s interpretation is a careful balance between a childlike frump and an intelligent wit. A combination of factors from Stevie’s life: losing years of her childhood to tuberculosis, never leaving home and losing both of her parents young, meant that she never really had to grow up. We see her mothered and spoiled silly by her ‘Lion Aunt’ (Lynda Baron), who is both feisty and endearing, but a bit too floral and homely to live up to her outspoken, feminist reputation.
Stevie’s spoiled lifestyle translates into a naivety towards the real world. For instance, her job as a secretary in a publishing house is to her just another place to write. She depends on the friends she meets and literary parties to chauffeur her and put up and shut up about it at that. As the world, even her beloved Palmers Green, seems to move and change around her she just remains stubborn to her roots. It must be tough to showcase the life of someone who was so introverted, and although Wanamaker’s flawless comic timing adds plenty of dimension, the rest seems to fall a bit flat.
Stevie’s story is cleverly told, Wanamaker directly addresses the audience all the way through so there’s a sense that we’re getting the biography straight from the horse’s mouth. This is intermingled with exerts from her poems, letters and prose, as well as personal dialogue between her and her Aunt and a variety of male acquaintances all played by Chris Larkin.
Larkin’s friend-turned-chauffeur character was insightful and funny, but he also played a kind-of narrator, ‘Man’ who jarred with me. He seemed to lurk in the corner of every scene and pitch in willy nilly, to help skip through some action. That’s precisely what Stevie is missing for me: action. There’s nothing to rouse excitement or further intrigue.
Larkin’s Man summarises Stevie’s attempted suicide in a sentence or two. An element of her life that could have elevated the plot to another level. Instead, I left wishing there had been something more.
Author: Hugh Whitemore
Director: Christopher Morahan
Producer: Hampstead Theatre
Booking Until: 18/04/2015
Box Office: 02077229301
Booking Link: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2015/stevie/?book=true