Stevie, a biographical play about the poet Stevie Smith, was produced for Chichester Festival 2014. The production was sponsored by the University of Chichester and performed from 24 April to 24 May 2014 at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester.
This production is a revival of Hugh Whitemore's 1977 play, Stevie, which explores the life of the highly individual English poet and novelist, Stevie Smith. It was chosen to open the prestigious Chichester Festival 2014, as part of a 'landmark season' of plays and other events.
Below is an extract from the Festival's summary of Stevie's plot:
'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.'
As the Festival team commented in an email newsletter, 'We couldn't have had a better start to the season than with the four star production Stevie'.
Stevie Smith ... ZoŽ Wanamaker
Aunt ... Lynda Baron
The Man ... Chris Larkin
Writer: Hugh Whitemore
Director: Christopher Morahan
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Music: Jason Carr
Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes
Rehearsals for Stevie began on 17 March 2014. Around that time, ZoŽ emphasised how pleased she is that 'this brilliant play' is being revived. She notes that the last major stage production of Stevie was in 1977 (followed by a 1978 film version), with Glenda Jackson in the title role.
Stevie marks the second time that Zoe has taken part in Chichester Festival. For her first appearance at the Festival, in 1997, she played the title role in Frank McGuinness' version of Sophocles' Greek tragedy Electra, in a production that subsequently played to audiences in London and on Broadway. Chichester Festival Theatre's heritage arts project, Pass It On, has tweeted a photo from its archive of ZoŽ as Electra, on-stage at the Minerva Theatre, the venue at which Stevie was also performed.
A couple of talks took place after selected performances of Stevie, as outlined below, that are likely to be of particular interest to ZoŽ's fans.
- 'Post-Show Late with Kate: ZoŽ Wanamaker' (6 May): ZoŽ chatted to author Kate Mosse about the production and her performance in it. A write-up of this event is available here, and you can listen to the discussion, courtesy of Chichester Festival's YouTube channel, below.
- 'Post-show talk: Stevie' (19 May): cast and crew members discussed the production.
Two related events:
- The Stevie Project (22 April - 17 May): A weekly theatre project, focused on the poetry of Stevie Smith and led by drama practitioner Kim Hope, which culminated in the following event.
- The Poetry of Stevie Smith (17 May): Stevie Smith's poems were introduced by Dr William May, author of Stevie Smith and Authorship, and performed by community actors.
ZoŽ's return to the stage for Stevie is the focus of BroadwayWorld's article about Chichester Festival 2014.
In an interview published by the Chichester Observer, Zoe discusses the challenges and rewards of working on the play.
'What Hugh [Whitemore, the playwright] has done is brilliantly woven 90 per cent of her writing into the piece. He has segued into a poem without you realising that is what he is doing. The poems are not just plonked there. In that sense, the play is brilliantly orchestrated and beautifully written.'
She adds: 'But it is a strange piece. It is not a recital. There is no terrible conflict. But it is the story of an extraordinary but ordinary person that lives in suburbia but has this incredible brain. It is a quite a complex piece.'
Portraying Stevie Smith, a highly individual woman in a highly individual play, requires strong commitment. In Zoe's words, 'I am completely absorbed by her [...] really such a fascinating person.'
Stevie's director, Christopher Morahan, praised Zoe highly when he was interviewed about the play and its star by The Argus newspaper. He commented: 'When I was asked to direct this, I was delighted and flattered she wanted to work with me. I admire her very much.'
Morahan also shed light on the nature of the play, in which the characters speak to each other and the audience through Stevie Smith's poetry: 'The dialogue works particularly well without telling the audience it is a poem at that particular moment. The poetry expresses what she [Stevie] wants to say. Hugh [Whitemore] paints an extraordinary portrait of her.'
ZoŽ's co-star, Lynda Baron, who portays Stevie Smith's beloved aunt, spoke enthusiastically about the play when interviewed by Portsmouth News. She remarked that Stevie 'really is a marvellous play' and 'such fun'.
She added that the poet's aunt provides 'a bit of normality in Stevie's extraordinary world where her imagination flowed in all directions. Stevie's intellectual life was incredible.'
Stevie opened on 2 May to stunning reviews. Below are some of the highlights.
'ZoŽ Wanamaker is so perfectly cast in Hugh Whitemore's play about the life and work of the poet Stevie Smith that you don't feel so much that she's acting as simply channelling the mid-20th century poet and novelist. She transforms an evening that could be reticent, maybe even a little coy, into something more ferocious and dangerous. Sadder too. Like the man in Smith's most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning, who swims too far out to sea so those on the shore misinterpret his wave for help as gaiety, Wanamaker's Stevie is constantly signalling her distress behind a larky demeanour.'
- Lyn Gardner, Guardian
'In its own quiet way, this is a highly ingenious piece, slipping seamlessly between poetry and dialogue to create a vivid impression of both the poet and the private woman. [...] Wanamaker turns on a sixpence between high spirits and sudden piercing moments of desolation. And she discovers every ounce of humour in the role'
- Charles Spencer, Telegraph
'[A] stunning performance from Wanamaker [...] It [Stevie] gets richer, funnier and more emotional the longer it continues [...] So this warm, inspiring revival is a quiet triumph.'
- Dominic Maxwell, The Times
'Wanamaker turns the poet into a loveable heroine below a mop of stick straight hair and a dress sense that seldom strayed from tweed skirts and sandals.
Her phlegmy voice is thickened with real fags sparked up on stage, and she is movingly possessed by Smithís ghost - sometimes waving, sometimes drowning.'
- Patrick Marmion, Daily Mail
'Wanamaker's poet, looking deceptively prim decked out in little-girl sandals, makes life seem like a place to linger in hopefully, even as she's flagging up the prevalence of pain.'
- Maxie Szalwinska, The Sunday Times
'[T]he evening belongs to ZoŽ Wanamaker as Stevie. She shares with Eileen Atkins the ability to convey an intelligence constantly at work beneath a mask of self-deprecation. By turns, wry, raw and passionate, Wanamaker makes the poet as fascinatingly unclassifiable as her work.'
- Michael Arditti, Sunday Express
'Wonderful Wanamaker captures her quirky, larky individuality to a tee and sends you racing back to her poetry for her wisdom and wit.'
- Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday
'Its trump card is a humdinger of a performance by ZoŽ Wanamaker in the title role'
- Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard
'Though poetry is usually a private relationship between the poet and the page and then the page and the reader, the public performance of some of it in this recreation of her own living room has a spellbinding intensity thanks to the glorious performance of Zoe Wanamaker in the title role.'
- Mark Shenton, The Stage
'The marvellous Zoe Wanamaker plays Stevie, whose poetry made her a celebrity of post- war Britain. Her performance is near flawless as the challenging Stevie Smith, musing through her life in conversations with her aunt, several gentlemen associates, but mostly the audience at the Minerva Theatre.'
- Ian Murray, Daily Echo
'It was a perfect piece of casting.
Quite apart form the challenge of delivering dialogue which has been curated from the author's poems and novels, this single-set production in the sitting room of Stevie's middle class home in Palmers Green, London, demands a piquancy from its leading lady to lift it from the humdrum to the sublime.
Ms Wanamaker injects just such a vibrancy.'
- Gary Shipton, West Sussex Gazette
'ZoŽ Wanamaker gives an increasingly-winning performance as the poet nervously flutters around the house she shares with her "lion" aunt, seamlessly slipping into verse which has now sadly lapsed into obscurity.
Where Hugh Whitemore's play scores is in showing us how the poetry emanates from Stevie, and this is where Wanamaker is at her strongest: the poetry isn't an addition to Smith's life; it is her life.'
- Phil Hewitt, Chichester Observer
'ZoŽ Wanamaker is both charismatic and eccentric as the chain-smoking title character, decked out in homemade dresses and surrounded by piles of books [...] This subtle but affecting play fully deserves a West End transfer, with the trio setting the bar high for this yearís Chichester season.'
- Duncan Hall, The Argus
'[T]he evening belongs to Zoe Wanamaker as shambling, rambling, ciggy-puffing Stevie.
The play is virtually a monologue by Wanamaker with interruptions - and she never falters. She, too, has the measure of Stevieís child-like verse.'
- James George, Portsmouth News
'In this magnificent Stevie, the poetry and prose work effortlessly and enjoyably together. Stevie Smith, who was played by Glenda Jackson in the '70s production, is brought back to life powerfully by Zoe Wanamaker in this Minerva revival and deserves this splendid reincarnation.'
- Nick Keith, Life in Petersfield
'Words invigorated her [Stevie Smith] as they invigorate this tribute play. Mischievous self-awareness makes her real: Wanamaker, who dwells all evening with fierce concentration within this private personality, gives precise and useful weight both to the heroine's summonses to death and to lines like "Critics get awfully cross when I write cat poems. They seem to think it's letting the side down". Bullseye! The literati came to love her, and she played up when she wanted. But she never joined their club.'
- Libby Purves, theatrecat.com
'ZoŽ Wanamaker is Stevie in a tremendous performance of constant and often emotional dialogue which contains large paragraphs of her writing [...] This is a play which will keep you fascinated, stay with you long after you have left the theatre and inspire you to read more of the work of the complex character who was Stevie Smith.'
- Sheila Connor, British Theatre Guide
'Zoe Wanamaker is the poet, neurotic and drily droll, awkward of posture, devoid of fashion sense, issue of an unsuitable marriage, lingering hopefully, smoking too much, escaping at the last moment from the drowned submarine of conformity, weeping in the bathtub. A funny, poignant performance, capturing the physique as well as the psychology of this lonely pocket Hercules.'
- Michael Gray, Michael Gray's Arts Blog
'Wanamaker's smoky voiced Smith is cantankerous, independent, depressive, suicidal, lonely and, scarred by her father's desertion, unable to commit to a man.
It is a tour de force from the actor, who restlessly prowls the set, smoking, and reliving the poet's life with all its minutiae.'
- Anne Cox, Stage Review
'Stevieís pessimistic view of life and gritty humour is enormous fun; I couldnít think of anyone better for the job than Wanamaker.'
- Guy Conroy-Smith, Youth Music Theatre
'To play such a complex and unconventional woman I donít think you could do better than ZoŽ Wanamaker and she more than ably fills Stevieís shoes, that immediately recognisable purr revelling in the poetry and in the eccentricities of the character.'
- Matt Merritt, Sitting in the Cheap Seats
'Driving the work [...] is Zoe Wanamaker's astonishing Stevie. On stage almost throughout, the role is massive both in terms of her character's emotional complexities (Smith suffered from depression) as well as the sheer volume of text. Wanamaker is sublime, capturing the fragility of Smith's youth, blighted by TB and from there charts her life with perception.'
- Jonathan Baz, jonathanbaz.com
'Wanamaker's performance was amazing; intense and funny, angry and vulnerable, the character, pig headed, funny and eccentric.'
- Ged Babey, Louder Than War
In addition to their original reviews, two critics included the play in their weekly review round-ups on 11 May:
'ZoŽ Wanamaker is a marvel as the poet Stevie Smith in this fine bioplay'
- Dominic Maxwell, The Sunday Times
'ZoŽ Wanamaker gives a superbly witty and touching performance'
- Charles Spencer, Sunday Telegraph
Chichester Festival: Stevie production details
Chichester Festival's Facebook Page: Stevie rehearsal photos
Chichester Festival's Facebook Page: Stevie production photos
WestEndTheatre.com: Stevie production photos
Rex Features: Stevie production photos
Rex Features: More Stevie production photos
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