by Hugh Whitemore.
Minerva Theatre Oaklands Park PO 19 6AP To 24 May 2014.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat & 7, 15, 21 May.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 01243 781312.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 5 May.
Journey through a life, made significant by art.
With this revival of his 1977 play about poet Stevie Smith and last year’s premiere of his new drama A Marvellous Year for Plums, Hugh Whitemore could be Chichester’s house dramatist. His work connects well with many of Chichester’s theatregoers.
Elegant, well-designed, drawing on a past within the memory of older theatregoers, it fills-in the background to significant events, keeping within the bounds of realism even as it stretches them. In Stevie Smith speaks to us, then joins a conversation with her aunt for a time, before wheeling back to comments about her past from the play’s present-day, while the Man adds his comments or becomes someone drifting through Stevie’s life, unable to attach her to himself.
Whitemore’s work prods but never jerks audience intelligence. His dramatic form suits Florence Margaret Smith, born, 1902, in Hull, moving to Palmers Green – then a suburb as much country as city – dropping her first name, remaining Peggy to her aunt but known publically as Stevie, originally a jokey nickname.
A lifelong commuter to her job as secretary with a women’s magazine, Smith worked her way to a reputation as novelist and, mainly, a quietly impressive poet capturing middle-class concerns and skewering particular types.
Stevie places her firmly at home, designer Simon Higlett suggesting the suburban order in traditional furniture and green branches overhanging from the garden. The Man walks in and out of the scene, as men did in Stevie’s life (she died in 1971), while her aunt, whom she clearly loved, was a stabilising force less demanding than a husband.
Her most famous poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ places her as a loner out of emotional necessity, concerned about the position yet secure in her suburban seclusion. Lynda Baron brings sublime common-sense to her Aunt, sympathetic and facing the struggles of old age. Zoe Wanamaker’s Stevie is composed of details – the quizzical or assertive expression, the awkward gait, increasingly stiff and shuffling – mixed together with a unifying art that seems to recreate the poet in her front-room. No detail extrudes, none is missed by her, or Christopher Morahan’s scrupulous and thoughtful direction.
Stevie: Zoe Wanamaker.
Aunt: Lynda Baron.
Man: Chris Larkin.
Director: Christopher Morahan.
Designer: Simon Higlett.
Lighting: Colin Grenfell.
Sound: John Leonard.
Music: Jason Carr.
Assistant director: Jon Pashley.