Friday, 17 April 2015

'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre

There's a new production of 'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre, the play about Stevie Smith with Zoe Wanamaker in the title role. Stevie holds a rather odd place in modern English literature, a lauded poet in her day but largely forgotten today, a name we've heard of but who can name any of her poems? Not me. It's also not that easy to find her books.

The title page of the theatre's website includes a quote from Stevie:

"You expect me to behave in a certain way, to think a certain way, to lead a certain life. Well, I don't think I can do it."

That makes her enormously attractive to me.

The play is, essentially, Stevie telling us about her life growing up in Palmers Green in north London, being a bit different, a bit idiosyncratic, finding love but deciding it's not for her and living with her 'lion-aunt' played by Lynda Baron with a mane of grey hair. Within seconds of Zoe coming on stage she convinced me that she was Stevie - that's no mean feat and a tribute to Zoe's skills as an actor. She was just standing there, then moving across the stage which was set as their living room with chairs and a desk, smoking incessantly, speaking quickly and slowly, thinking as she remembers and tells us about her life. And there was Stevie.

There's a great partnership between Zoe and Lynda as long-term cohabitees of their house in Palmers Green, knowing each others foibles and preferences. Lynda was excellent as the lion-aunt shuffling in and out with tea and, later, dinner, worried about her niece and her life. It was really touching to see her in the second half, grown old and unable to walk unaided and now looked after by Stevie, the dutiful and loving niece.

I loved the set - simple in a sense since it was based entirely in the living room of the house but very complex in the detail. The lovely front door with stained glass panels, the living room bay window with trees outside, the big book case with the small stool to reach the books higher up. I thought it was great.

Greater still was Zoe Wanamaker acting her socks off and making it all look so easy. The dialogue includes quotes from Stevie's poems and prose and provided a few dramatic moments when least expected. We see Zoe all dressed up to go to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace and then fall ill while nursing her sister, all terribly laconic.

What this play achieved was to make me want to find out more about Stevie Smith and make her more than just a name in the back of my head. Zoe brought her to life and I need to take the next step and learn about her.

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