Monthly Archives: March 2015

Stevie (Hampstead Theatre)

To Swiss Cottage this weekend for a revival of the 1977 play by Hugh Whitemore, about the writer Stevie Smith, which has now landed in London via the Chichester Festival.  It was filmed in 1978 with the original ‘Stevie’, Glenda Jackson.

This time around the role of the spinster poet who lives with her maiden aunt in Palmers Green is played by Zoë Wanamaker, with Lynda Baron as the ‘Lion Aunt’ and Chris Larkin as ‘The Man’.


The set design by Simon Higlett is a perfect balance to Christopher Morahan’s direction, and the intimacy of the piece sits well in the Hampstead Theatre’s space – where the Smith living room is invaded by trees from the garden and is filled with photographs, books, and religious icons.  This ‘house of female habitation’, to quote one of Smith’s plays, is where both Stevie and her aunt pass the years, and during that time we see hints of both past and present through the last few years of her life.

Those of you who remember the film might notice one slight change it made from the stage production – it did not have the same actor playing both ‘The Man’ and Smith’s old beau, Freddy.  Here, Chris Larkin (who is so like his mother, Maggie Smith, especially when he plays the slightly camp friend who is used as a pseudo-taxi service by Stevie) plays both roles, and observes many scenes in quiet contemplation.

I liked Lynda Baron’s aunt a lot – she is both funny and vulnerable, and it is a great portrayal of a strong women growing frail and forgetful with age.  Wanamaker’s Stevie is also funny and fragile, although throughout I was reminded how good Glenda Jackson had been in the role, and how she could bring a sense of dangerous imbalance to the role which I didn’t see in Wanamaker – I also felt the play took a little time to warm up and get going, although the second half, on balance, is much better,

The strength of this play, though, is not in Whitemore’s ‘creation’ of Smith as a person, but in the reciting of her poems, which can stand on their own without embellishment.  Smith was a rhymer, and on the face of it a writer of fey simplicity, but that would be a great disservice to her.  In pieces like ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, ‘The Jungle Husband’, ‘Infelice’ (not included here) and others there is a lot more going on that would originally appear.

Harvey (Richmond Theatre – now in the West End)

The 1950 film of ‘Harvey’, starring James Stewart, and directed by Henry Koster, is certainly a hard act to follow.  I’d seen the play (by Mary Chase) done by an amateur theatre group before, and found it entertaining.  This is the first professional production I had seen, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Yes, it takes a while to warm up and get going.  Maureen Lipman’s Veta has an American accent which wanders all over the place but then settles into something far less painful, but she is excellent as the fussy woman with aspirations to have a house-full of guests who are not scared away by her odd brother and his friend.

That friend being the Harvey of the title, a large white rabbit, six feet three inches tall, who appeared to our hero, Elwood P Dowd, one evening, just leaning against a lamp-post.  He spoke to Elwood by name and commented on the intoxication of his friend, who had just been shepherded away by taxi.  And as Elwood tells us, later, he thought nothing of it because ‘when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.’

James Dreyfus, who was so good on television in ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, is a fine Elwood, a little camp, a little fey, and nothing like Stewart.  That’s all to the good.  He makes the insane normal and the psychotic likeable, while all the normal people around him seem to be strange.

The thing about ‘Harvey’ as a play is that it has some great lines, whether it is the one about the ‘stranger in the bathtub’, or ‘For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me’.  The characters are well-drawn, if a little ridiculous, and if Elwood and his friend bring the doctor and nurse together, or the burly orderly and the niece, then that’s to the good.

In Lindsay Posner’s new production, there is superb and clever set design by Peter McKintosh, working largely on a revolve, while most of the lines and passages we know so well remain.  My particular favourites are the little speech by the taxi driver (here played by Linal Haft, who I recognised immediately from those 1980s BT ads where he played the son of ‘Beattie’, played by … Maureen Lipman), and the description by Elwood of how he gains friends in drinking places.

In fact I will repeat that lovely passage right here:  ‘Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear’.

There’s an hilarious bit from David Bamber as Dr Chumley, who starts the day hiding in his room and ends it pub-crawling with a brand-new friend who makes him yen for cold beer and a girl who never speaks.  And, curiously, this comedy, which started so gingerly, becomes something rather more than fun.  It becomes rather moving in its finale.  And that is its gift, and Harvey’s.

‘Harvey’ is now on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.  I strongly recommend it.

Remembering England’s great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall

On 5th March 2015 it will be twenty years since the wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent.


He may well be best known yet for his time as the frontman of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, a ragbag of art students who started by apeing the sounds of jazz and silly big band tunes by way of Spike Jones and Flanders and Swann.  They recorded ‘My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’, ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’, and made a memorable, and early, television appearance performing ‘Bill Bailey’ on Blue Peter, before taking up residency on one of the shows which pre-dated Monty Python, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.

Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’.  Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.


It was with their 1968 album,  ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’, however, that the odd side of the Bonzos really took hold: ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ and ‘Postcard’ all seemed to be railing against what the rest of the world accepted as dreary, everyday, and normal.  During this year their single ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ was played out on the German show ‘Beat Club’ – it was in repeats of that show that I first spotted Vivian Stanshall, thought he was a fascinating and unique creature, and became hooked for life.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, what can only be described as the ‘Sir Henry Rawlinson’ phenomenon took flight – first with a run of radio extracts on the John Peel show, an album (strictly speaking two albums, but the second was released, unfinished, after being taken without consent from Stanshall), then a feature film in 1980 (with associated book, published by Eel Pie and full of wonders and snapshots from the film),   Sir Henry might well be his greatest achievement – and yet, and yet …

Watching ‘Vivian Stanshall’s Week’ from 1975, one might take time to adjust to the absurdity and surrealism of what passes as one man’s everyday life (as well as being quite shocked at his appearance at this time), but it is a slice of television quite unlike anything else that was around at the time.  During the 1970s he was also involved in the seminal ‘Tubular Bells’ project from Mike Oldfield, introducing the instruments, and in writing for Steve Winwood’s solo albums (notably the songs ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘Arc of a Diver’).  These songs alone showcase a perceptive and sensitive lyricist rather at odds with the public image of a difficult and crude eccentric given to scatalogical humour and slightly offensive offbeat observations.

1974’s album ‘Man Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ achieved almost-legendary status during its long period of unavailability between release date and 2010.  I remember obtaining a bootleg in the 1990s and being shocked and enthralled by the music I was hearing – dangerous, yes, but also sensual, troubling, wildly funny, and in places, rather beautiful.  It is a modern classic in many ways (particularly the epic ‘Strange Tongues’ and the troublingly weird ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Et Cetera’).  His follow up solo album (of songs) from 1981, was ‘Teddy Boys Don’t Knit’, a far more personal affair with tracks dedicated to his wife and young daughter, and reflections on his childhood and life as a ‘rock musician’.

Stanshall’s life continued to be troubled by addictions and mental breakdowns throughout the remainder of his life, but now and again there were peaks of brilliance – artwork, voice work on adverts (the 1980s Tennants Pilsner ones were superb, as were the two Creme Egg ones based on older Bonzo songs ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro’), and a more recent discovery for me, the return of ‘Tubular Bells’, from 1993.  His last major television appearance was in ‘Crank’ (made for ‘The Late Show’) in 1991, while on radio he spoke about his parents, in 1994, for a special programme, and discussed losing his virginity at a surprisingly early age in the Pulp promotional film ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’


It seemed that despite his frailty Vivian Stanshall would always endure, and so it was a great shock, and a great sadness, when he passed away in a house fire on that fateful night in 1995.  Since then his star has continued to shine bright and his influence on performers such as Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson has endured.  We might celebrate the Young Ones, Little Britain, or the League of Gentlemen, but I submit that someone else got there first – the man in the sharp suit and the lounge voice who appears in the cabaret spot in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the man who contributed a couple of rock pastiche songs to the soundtrack of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and parodied the King himself on ‘The Last Temptation of Elvis’, the man who crooned about being a ‘Big Shot’ and frightened passers-by dressed as a giant rabbit.

We will not see his like again, and we miss him like crazy.  However, his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall is currently planning to bring a showcase of Vivian’s work back to the fore through an exhibition of his work which will hopefully engage and excite a new generation.  I have a feeling the old boy might have been very pleased about all the attention.



Amy Steele on music, books and other (mostly alternative) entertainment

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