A Perfect Subject and the Story Behind the Story

Written by Hugh Whitemore and directed by Christopher Morahan,'Stevie' tells the life and times of poet Stevie Smith, most famed for her 1957 poem 'Not Waving but Drowning'.Moving seamlessly between exhaustion and a bouncy, childlike energy, Stevie finds her comfort at home with her 'Lion Aunt', a typically robust Northernerwith the near-catchphrase of 'stuff and nonsense'.Stevie encounters varying degrees of success across her career but the play is more focused on her relationships with those closest to her. Chris Larkin playsthe character 'Man', an embodimentof the various men in Stevie's life, but this proves a slightly ineffective device as each one passes through withminimalimpact.

Stevie's deliverythroughout the play is largely in monologue form, chatting to the audience as if we we're old friends sharing a cuppa with her in the cosy living room, but this is interrupted on occasion for either conversation with Auntor Man, or recital of herown poetry, asomewhat jarring effect to begin with but one that the audience warms to in time. The poetry is often witty, child-like in it's rhythm, but with a piercing and incisivequality that demonstrated that Stevie had her own unique insight into human emotion. Stevie herself is an entertainingpresence, lilting in speech and movement, and brought to life by a perfectly cast Wanamaker.

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Reviews have been very positive and there seemed to be mass approval amongst the oh-so-Chichester, besuited audience (my god did I feel out of place still dressed in the hoody and jeans I had worn to work that day) that poured out of the Minerva that night, but 'Stevie' wasn't really for me.

In the most thrilling development of the first Act, someone's mobile phone went off. It began quietly, distantly, like the sound of a twinkling star in a Disney movie, and steadily built into more of a deafening foghorn. Zoe Wanamaker gamely tried to continue with her monologue but was eventually forced to pause; at this point it was not hard to imagine her muttering all sorts of expletives as the steam rose from her ears. Ever the professional, though, she waited a few seconds, took a deep breath and re-started her line, while the audience loudly tutted the mystery disturber of the peace. Considering thevisual and audio warning messages prior to the start of the showthat metaphorically smash you about the skull, I do find it amazing that anyone could have forgotten to either switch their phone off or at the very least put it on silent.

The impossibly middle class man sat behind me turned to his wife as the lights came on for the interval and remarked, 'It hasn't quite bitten me yet dear'. Notexactly how I would have worded it, but I got his point. It was all a bit twee for my liking, like a Sunday afternoon BBC drama, just with a couple of F-bombs chucked in. Things genuinely did pick up a fair bit in the second Act, withdoses of poignancy and melancholy, but by that point I couldn't quite muster up the energy to fully invest in the events of the play.

Zoe Wanamaker, however, by now a national treasure across the theatre, television and film worlds, wasnear faultless in the title role. Similarly strong was Lynda Baron, always capable of raising titters and chuckles (as raucous as it gets in Chichester) amongst the audience as Stevie's beloved,straight-talking Aunt, but equally impressivein the later, sadderstages of the play as her health deteriorates.I supposemy largest gripe was that, while CFT billed the play as a 'moving glimpse into an unconventional and challenging life', there didn't seem to me to be enough that was discernibly 'unconventional' or thrilling or scandalous about Stevie Smith's life to make it a story truly worth telling, or a story truly worth watching.

It probably didn't help that I'd had three and a half hours sleep the night before, and every time I felt my eyes go they opened to find Zoe Wanamaker staring straight at me, with that fabulous mixture of anger and disappointment that schoolteachers have perfected. Yes, almost certainly just my imagination, but still, sorry Zoe.

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Posted in Photograph Post Date 04/09/2018






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