When I first came to London as a young, provincial wannabe and poetaster, I used to hang out in the French House in Dean Street. It was a poetic watering hole and a lot of braggarts and losers propped up the bar and filled the air with heavy smoking while swilling down their Guinness genius and ruining any chance they might have had for success.
Famous poets (who also did drink) did walk through the doors – George Barker, Dylan Thomas, John Heath Stubbs and many others, but the name whispered amongst the cognoscenti was Stevie Smith who became the myth and the legend never to appear at watering holes, but whispered to be the unsung real poet of her time.
Indeed that assessment has rung true down the years and in this exquisite, understated and incredibly moving play which celebrates her life and work – we are given a real insight into just what she was up to – away from the watering holes – in her home in Palmers Green.
Stevie is played with conviction and respect by Zoe Wanamaker and such is that great actor’s skill, it is as if Zoe were Stevie.
I saw Zoe Wanamaker make a guest appearance in Mr Selfridge on TV last Sunday playing a duchess type person, a very haughty role, so different from the timorous and diffident Stevie, yet in both parts Ms Wanamaker was totally convincing – such is the chameleon gift of the actor..
The play, however, has a bleak tale to tell.
In chronological fashion, it describes a life consisting of going to work, coming home from work to a much loved aunt and companion, to a life of writing out of feeling rather than thought, but with wit and irony, conscious of an awareness of time passing, life slipping away, a suicide attempt, regret and shame for that, and then – SUCCESS!
But what a price to pay!
However, toward the end of the second act, I did rejoice in her enjoyment of that success, the parties, the movement from sherry to champagne, the good reviews, a Queen’s Medal for poetry, meeting the Queen …
But her much loved aunt died, another family member fell ill, and Stevie herself approached death via a brain tumour.
In a most moving final scene she summons death as a companion, as someone or something she was able to cling on to, to trust. Yes, Mr Death will definitely arrive. “Come soon,” she whispers.
It is the conscious irony and wit of the poet, Stevie Smith, the writing of Hugh Whitemore, the performance of Zoe Wanamaker, that makes this such an important night for literature and for life; also for death.
I need also to mention the set which was a wonderful 1940’s Palmers Green and the theatre space itself – one of the most comfortable and sensibly designed in London.
Until 18th April 2015
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