Stevie Smith lived a peculiarly limited life, cast out in the suburban periphery of Palmers Green with her spinster aunt, wary of intimacy and taunted by moments of morbid melancholia. Yet for all the humdrum cosiness and the occasional threat of drowning in despair there was also an enduring joy: the dogged love for affectionately nick-named Lion Aunt, literati parties, and the wealth of words that Smith's suburbia inspired.
Though beloved mostly for one bathetic, heart-breaking poem, Not Waving But Drowning, Smith wrote prolifically, publishing nine volumes. Her whisps of whimsical verse, buoyantly rhyming, are interspersed with sweetly simple line drawings and scored with moments of shattering morbidity.
A unique perspective
Describing Smith's distinctive talent, fellow poet Philip Larkin wrote: “she sees something poetic move where we do not, takes a pot-shot at it, and when she holds it up, forces us to admit that there was something there, even though we have never seen anything like it before.”
Performing the poetry
It is this lively imagination and the oddly majestic poetry it inspired that is brought to life in Hugh Whitmore’s award-winning play about a literary life that was as mundane as it was momentous. Director Christopher Morahan’s revival was lauded when it premiered at Chichester in spring 2014. The suburbia that Smith captures in lines such as "foundations and a pram/ four walls and a pot of jam" is painstakingly immortalised on stage by designer Simon Higlett in a static sitting room that changes only with subtle shifts in the lighting.
Zoe Wanamaker confirmed to star
While the supporting cast were given a well-deserved place in the critics' praise, it was, unsurprisingly, the mighty Zoe Wanamaker who shone the brightest. The Harry Potter star has, excitingly, confirmed that she will reprise her starring role as the bard of Palmers Green in the Hampstead transfer. With her characteristic elfin grace she caught Smith's naive persona and sharp humour perfectly. But there is nothing shallow about either the actress or the poet, and Wanamaker portrays a ferocious intelligence and fragility flickering beneath the surface.
Culture Whisper review: Stevie, Hampstead Theatre: ★★★★★
Hugh Whitmore's play about Stevie Smith's life moves along with the same gentle shifts as an anthology of Smith's verse: there's a static continuity to the show, staged in a single room, combined with a life story told through vignettes, much like individual poems. We were thrust straight into Smith's imagination, which, we slowly realise is as dark as it is distinct and delightful. Zoe Wanamaker deftly weaves together idiosyncratically funny asides ('I may look like a pocket Hercules, but I'm dreadfully low in energy') with extracts of Smith's poetry. Interspersed verse runs the risk of stinting the story, but Whitmore's subtle script and Wanamaker's vivid performance combine to make the poetry to illuminate the life of the poet, and to engage even the audience members who'd never heard of the bard of Palmers Green. If the story of Stevie Smith and her wealth of whimsical but sharp poems are new to you, then this production is a charming introduction. And, as ardent fans of the literature, we were moved by the humanity of Whitmore's script, showing not just Smith's supreme literary talent, but her self-possession, cutting humour and fierce love for her Lion Aunt. If you're looking for action and intense drama, Stevie will not thrill, but, to borrow a phrase used to describe one of Smith's real life poetry readings, it is 'touching, truthful and haunting'.
|What||Stevie, Hampstead Theatre|
|Where||Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Swiss Cottage (underground)|
06 Mar 15 – 18 Apr 15, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
|Website||Click here to book via Hampstead Theatre|