Hampstead Theatre, London
Stevie `Peggy’ Florence Margaret Smith was north London’s singular Palmers Green poet of suburbia. If John Betjeman was sometimes able to cast a rosy glow over suburban life, `Stevie’ Smith is the one who consistently bursts its bubble with a keen eye and acerbic tongue.
Turned into a memorable biographical portrait by Hugh Whitemore in the late (1970s) – originally with Glenda Jackson – it resurfaced last year in Christopher Morahan’s popular revival at Chichester with Zoë Wanamaker taking on the mantle of the surprisingly unconventional publisher’s secretary who went on to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry from the hand of the monarch herself.
Stevie’s account of the occasion amusingly rounds off an evening in which, set in the front room of the house Stevie shared with her `Lion Aunt’ (such a wonderful phrase) at 1 Avondale Road, takes us through the `highlights’ of a life lived modestly but steadily, threaded through with extracts from some of her best known work – Not Waving but Drowning, Tender Only to One, and many more.
Anyone hoping for dramatic fireworks may initially be disappointed in an evening now slightly beginning to show its age as a well-made play with fine performances. But within its conventional biopic form, Whitemore has created an endearing portrait of a woman partly in love with death, given to great melancholy but clearly a relisher of life and hungry connoisseur of human foibles with notable literary champions and even more impressive contact list; a perennial spinster who spurned marriage – `I am made for friendship’ – and who when later accused of not knowing about the passions because of her unmarried state, responded fiercely `I LOVED my aunt’.
Within Simon Higlett’s clever split-vision set – one part comfortable chair, drinks stacked sideboard and liberally strewn bookshelves, a shaded glade and over-hanging branches suggestive of N13 woodland – Wanamaker makes a doe-eyed portrait of Stevie spiced with waspish wisdoms and wit.
I’d have liked a bit more edge given the sparky tone of much of her work. Here it tends to be provided by Chris Larkin as a male voiced narrator and also some of the men in Stevie’s life such as Freddy to whom Stevie was briefly and unhappily engaged. More ballast is also provided through Whitemore’s third character, the Lion Aunt played by Lynda Baron.
Stevie’s Hull-born, northern buttress to her fingertips, whether exploding `stuff and nonsense’ or shuffling out to make Stevie’s tea, she creates the beating heart of the piece, the domestic pillar to whom Stevie always returned and whose demise, every painful shuddering step, rings movingly true.
Not an evening of strident fanfares then but for lovers of the Stevie oeuvre, possibly a delight.
First published in Londongrip, March 2015