by Hugh Whitemore.
Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU to 18 April 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: William Russell 23 March.
Not waving but applauding enthusiastically.
This is one of those splendidly satisfying West End plays of the type they don’t write any more, one which both offers a terrific role for its star – and Zoe Wanamaker as the poet Stevie Smith duly delivers the goods – and flatters the intelligence of the audience.
Smith, who died in 1971, lived in Palmers Green with her maiden aunt Margaret, known as the Lion Aunt, worked for a West End publisher and became a hugely successful poet, broadcaster and literary figure. The action is set in the living room of their home, a model of post-war British middle-class comfort – lots of books, family furniture acquired over the years – in which the pair squabbled, drank sherry and lived happily for years.
Whitemore has created a totally believable writer, a rare feat indeed. All too often in biographical plays and films the actor playing the “creator” fails to suggest they could possible have written that masterpiece, painted that picture. Given such good material Zoe Wanamaker responds by creating an equally believable Stevie, a woman of contradictions and determination, who lived by her own rules and found in the possibly stifling world of Palmers Green, a suburb far from smart where people were comfortably off but not rich, who made ends meet, her ideal home.
If the evening belongs to Wanamaker, button-eyed and pixie-like – she is hardly ever off stage – she gets admirable support in Christopher Morahan’s production from Lynda Baron as the Lion Aunt, a tough old biddy who loves, but does not really understand, her niece, and Chris Larkin as the various men in her life.
He has a lovely scene in Act Two as the camp fan who is to drive Steve to and from a speaking engagement a hundred miles away only to be told she will, if the hosts ask her, stay the night, which is not what he expects to have to do. His outraged hauteur is hilarious, proof he is not his mother’s son for nothing.
This is not challenging, ground-breaking theatre, but it is a totally satisfying, engrossing and stimulating evening very well acted and directed with a stunningly good set. What more could one ask for?
Man: Chris Larkin.
Stevie: Zoe Wanamaker.
Aunt: Lynda Baron.
Director: Christopher Morahan.
Designer: Simon Higlett.
Lighting: Tim Mitchell.
Sound: John Leonard.
Composer: Jason Carr.