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Review: Zoe Wanamaker is Stevie at Hampstead Theatre

Stevie_3233851bAll I know of Stevie Smith is her poem Not Waving But Drowning and I decided to keep it that way ahead of seeing Hugh Whitemore's play at Hampstead (Poly didn't even know she was a poet and I'd like to have seen the play through her eyes).

Not Waving makes an appearance, as do several of her other poems as we visit Stevie (Zoe Wanamaker) living with her 'lion aunt' (Lynda Baron) in suburban North London, working by day as a secretary in Piccadilly and writing by night.

Chris Larkin acts a sort of narrator and stands in for various boyfriends and acquaintances of Stevie's. Through the three characters we learn of Stevie's childhood, teenage years and how she thinks of the world.

It is a warm, tender and amusing portrayal from Wanamaker in what is a warm and gentle play. Stevie was an independent and extremely intelligent woman and probably viewed as an eccentric at the time. She wasn't really interested in men and was obsessed with death in that it was a subject and state that fascinated her, something that was reflected in her poems. She sought out other writers and became a bit of a celebrity, broadcasting on the BBC.

She is an interesting person to spend an evening with, as is her warm and loving 'lion aunt', the problem is I've subsequently sought out a bit more information on Stevie Smith and it's made the play seem a bit light.

The darker side of Stevie, her depression, attempted suicide and nervous breakdown are in the play but you have to really look for them and as a result it feels glossed over as part of her 'eccentricity'. Perhaps that reflects the period in which it was written, 1977, when mental health was still very much a taboo. Ruby Wax was in the audience and I'd love to know what she thought about it as someone who is very vocal about mental illness.

Stevie is a pleasant and amusing play, and enjoyable for that but on reflection is feels a bit of its time and I can't help wondering how a play of her life would look if written now.


Chris Larkin was in His Dark Materials at the National Theatre in which a very young Mr W also appeared.