Stevie: Minerva Theatre, Chichester – theatre review

Stevie: Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Author: Hugh Whitemore
Cast; Zoe Wannamaker, Chris Larkin, Lynda Baron

June 2014

Ged Babey’s wife takes him to the theatre for a new production of Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of Not Waving but Drowning poet, Stevie Smith.

Apparently, I enjoyed the film version of this play from 1978, staring Glenda Jackson in the title role, but I can’t remember ever seeing it to be honest. I much prefer Armitage Shanks song Drowning Not Waving than Stevie’s poem Not Waving But Drowning but seeing as this theatrical production starred the ever kooky looking and gorgeous Zoe Wannamaker and Nurse Gladys Emmanuel herself, Lynda Baron, I was glad Mrs B persuaded me to go. The summary, reproduced below from the Chichester Festival Theatre’s website didn’t make it sound a barrel of laughs…

Nervous and droll, Stevie Smith spends her days as a private secretary at the Newnes Publishing Company and her evenings in the London suburbs eating Battenberg cake and Ginger Nuts with her beloved Aunt. All the time she is writing the piercing poetry and prose that will make her famous.

In between there are diverting visits from a series of men and, later on, tussles with literary celebrity. Beyond everything there is her greatest, often darkly comic, struggle: to keep waving when she feels like drowning.

Hugh Whitemore’s award winning play is both a moving glimpse into an unconventional and challenging life, and a compelling celebration of Stevie Smith’s ever popular and powerful poetry.

Wannamaker’s performance was amazing; intense and funny, angry and vulnerable, the character, pig headed, funny and eccentric. Loads more energy and feeling than Glenda in the film version. Spell binding. Lynda Baron and Chris Larkin were superb as supports. Larkin as narrator, boyfriend, suitor and journalist was only spoilt by one of the characters being too near to a camp young Alan Bennett.

The remarkable, and punk rock thing, about the play is the fact that Wannamaker’s character smokes like the proverbial chim-chimeney. Every 15 minutes she lit up and in the interest of realness, it was actual real fags she was puffing on.  Consequently the room filled with a beautifully authentic smell of struck Swan Vestas and fags.  As a full time addict I loved it hoovering up the smoke through my nostrils ( I was in Row B).  Other patrons of the arts covered their mouth and nose with their scarves and coughed and tutted and scowled.  Similarly, a soliliquy about the middle classes from Stevie was all the more enjoyable and judging by the barely hidden relish with which it was delivered.

Having snapped a few quick camera phone photos of the set – which was amazing; the best I’ve ever seen per Mrs B – an officious usher scolded us and wouldn’t leave our side until all photos were deleted due to copyright.

Part of the enjoyment of going to Chichester is people watching. On leaving our enjoyment was summed up by one audience members comment, “very accessible”.  What did they expect? Difficult existential misery that only they would appreciate? Or was it shorthand for there was a “fucking” in the script and loads of booze and fags?

I’m not a theatre critic as you can tell, but this was the best thing I’ve ever since a stage production of the Elephant Man in the early 80s which is no faint praise. Its not cheap, but if you like Stevie Smith’s poetry, this is essential and Wannamaker is superb, totally immersed in the role.


The play runs until 24th MAY tickets from here.

All words Ged Babey. Spelling and grammar checked by Jooles. No photos due to copyright restrictions.

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Ged Babey is 56. from Southampton, has written since 1985 for Sound Info, Due South, various fanzines and websites, contributed to Record Collector magazine and was sole author of 'Punk Throwback' fanzine -the name of which was taken from an insult hurled at him by the singer with a young band he managed for a while. Ged believes that all good music and art has a connection with punk rock.


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