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.