Stevie

Last week we had a short break in London. We travelled down on the Monday so  that we could see the play about the poet, Stevie Smith, starring Zoe Wannamaker at the Hampstead Theatre.

The delightfully eccentric bard of Palmers Green, Stevie Smith, commutes to the West End to her work as a secretary at a publishing company. Her evenings are spent at home with her beloved Aunt – a world of Battenberg cake, gossip, Ginger Nuts and sherry in tiny glasses. But at the same time as leading this seemingly mundane suburban existence, she is writing the piercing poetry and prose that will one day make her famous.

(Photo source: Wikipedia)

Stevie Smith was a writer and poet, best known for her poem Not waving but drowning. She was born in Hull but moved to Palmers Green in North London when she was 3. She led an unconventional life, living with her Aunt and working as a secretary in Covent Garden, writing in quiet moments at work! The play suggests that she was something of a feminist, rejecting marriage and the constraints that would put upon her. Best known for her poetry, she also wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, is due to be re-released by Virago later this month.

On first reading her poems can seem slight,eccentric, even whimsical. But a more careful analysis reveals deeper meanings. According to a Times Literary Supplement critic

“Smith’s most distinctive achievement.” The critic elaborated: “The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems; and by the variety of topics embraced by the poet’s three or four basic and serious themes.”

The play, by Hugh Whitemore, which incorporated extracts from Stevie’s work, was a three hander with Zoe in the lead role, Linda Baron as her aunt with Chris Larkin playing the male roles. All three were very good. The role of Stevie was demanding, dominating the dialogue and with lengthy monologues. A feat of memory for Zoe Wannamaker. 

There was an article by the writer Amy Jenkins in the Guardian Review on Saturday. She writes

Smith is much undervalued, in my opinion. She is one of those writers who is always ripe for rediscovery – is intermittently rediscovered and then never quite catches on because, although she is very funny, she is also tricky, to say the least.

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