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STEVIE – Hampstead Theatre, London.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Imelda Staunton owned the Hampstead stage in last year’s Good People, which gets a much-deserved West End transfer later this spring. Now it’s the turn of another eminent actress to deliver a commanding performance, with Zoë Wanamaker impressively channelling British poet and novelist Stevie Smith in this otherwise languid revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 biographical play. Smith’s voice dominates, in the form of poetry, letters and irresistibly waspish anecdotes, and it’s a treat to hear it filtered through Wanamaker’s rich, smoky tones, but the drama surrounding this tragicomic figure suffers from a frustrating lack of propulsion.

Smith was a curious series of contradictions, a late-blooming celebrity who lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in a North London suburb with her battleaxe “Lion Aunt” (Lynda Baron). At once eternal child, shuffling awkwardly in red pinafore and rejecting real intimacy with a kind of fascinated horror, and prematurely ageing woman, she viewed life with an outsider’s eye, one which informed her superbly caustic and uncomfortably well-observed writing, even as it cut her off from her peers.

Wanamaker’s exquisitely detailed performance taps into that vast, complex hinterland without descending into pop psychology, and though she delivers Smith’s biting witticisms with relish, she truly impresses in later melancholic scenes when her aching morbidity rises to the surface. Death stalks Smith, from a tuberculosis-ridden childhood and the early loss of her mother to a failed suicide attempt and debilitating brain tumour, informing but not reducing the bleakly enigmatic “Not Waving but Drowning”, arguably her most influential work. That cry for help misinterpreted as grin-and-bear-it British stoicism underpins this soulful piece.

There’s enjoyable support from Baron’s bustling maiden aunt, whose rallying cry is “Stuff and nonsense!” and whose suspicion of all things intellectual makes her a prickly companion for the literary virtuoso. Their rhythm and routine is both refuge and trap, lending complicated poignancy to the Lion Aunt’s increasing decrepitude and eventual yielding of household duties to her niece. Chris Larkin supplies multiple male roles, from a somewhat superfluous extra narrator and exposition-bait journalist to the more effective boyish, limited suitor who Smith rejects after a trial engagement and, towards the end of her life, one of several chic intellectual friends pressed into chauffeur service.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Whitemore’s diligently researched and aptly wordy play, but, by limiting it to something between misty-eyed anthology and respectful love letter, he ensures it’s a time capsule in form as well as subject. There’s not much in the way of conflict, nor will any of the gentle developments surprise you, and Morahan’s drowsy pacing makes this two-hour-10 evening something of an endurance test, particularly in a first half inclined to get lost down anecdotal cul-de-sacs. Wanamaker’s spirited, sparky Stevie deserves a stronger sparring partner or bolder stylistic choices; at the very least, there’s a certain irony in embedding this incisive writer’s words within a rather indulgent framework.

Still, this Chichester transfer has some beautifully meditative moments, and, thanks to Simon Higlett’s textured set, a vivid sense of place, as the enclosing trees seem to infiltrate the cluttered suburban family home where florals dominate. It’s a paean to the eccentric and the power of female-only sanctuary, even as it raises the intriguing question of why someone who once dreamed of exploring distant jungles, and whose writing spanned a wide breadth of subjects, would choose such a minute, stifling sphere for her personal life. Is her rejection of marriage and weary reluctance to socialise a statement of independence, or a sign of something darker? Wanamaker’s elegant chain-smoker hints, but does not disclose.

Stevie doesn’t begin to match its subject’s piercing brilliance, couching her barbed worldview in soft surroundings, but it’s a strong primer for her work, and a convincing argument for its continued relevance. Whitemore honours her extraordinarily distinctive voice, even as his play struggles to clearly establish one of its own.

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Reviewed 16/03/15/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

6th March – 18th April 2015
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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