Hampstead Theatre | ★★☆☆☆
At the end of the Piccadilly Line, in a spindly fortress made of words, sat Stevie Smith; poet, secretary, inscrutable figure on the peripheries of the literary establishment. Smith lived her entire life within the confines of a padded melancholy. She was comfortable there, and productive, producing over twenty volumes of prose and poetry before her death in 1971.
Her novels were sad. Her poems sadder. She’s perhaps best known for three verses including the lines “I was much too far out all my life/Not waving but drowning.” The unique atmosphere of Smith’s writing owes to a haunting stillness: great echoey chasms between stanzas, lines pockmarked with silence.
This play, on the other hand, is a ramble. It overflows with words, lapsing exhaustingly between reflections on a stifled, celibate life and the verse that such a life inspired. To have so loquacious a play about a woman renowned for reticence seems wrong. Still, Zoe Wanamaker sparkles as Smith. Her performance is lively, exuberant, original – everything the rest of the play isn’t. Lynda Baron is also good as the sturdy northern aunt fond of dismissing Stevie’s literary whimsicality as “stuff and nonsense”.
Chris Larkin plays a handful of the men who faded in and out of Stevie’s life, none managing to find a permanent foothold. Larkin’s contributions work less well, seeming stiff and mannered next to Wanamaker’s unbridled delivery. The production has two great triumphs: Wanamaker’s performance and Simon Higlett’s beautiful design. Higlett miraculously conjures a suburban breeziness and light in the gloom of the Hampstead Theatre main house.
But this play is too bloated, too stiff and too plain long to enthrall or even move. It would have worked better as a zippy interval-less hour in which we could have tasted the piqunancy of Stevie’s wit and the sweet sadness of her self-imposed solitude.