“I don’t care what they think”
The quality of theatre that the Chichester Festival Theatre produces on a regular basis can barely be questioned. Big musicals aside, it may rarely be heart-thumpingly exciting or shine with innovative flair, but rather the focus is on meticulously constructed productions of the more traditional side of drama. Which goes to say that CFT couldn’t be more MOR if it tried, at the top end of the middle of the road to be sure, but still lacking something of a cutting edge.
In some ways, it might be an unfair suggestion. Christopher Morahan’s production of Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play Stevie is impeccably put together and features a fantastic performance from Zoë Wanamaker at its heart but the speed at which that heart races rarely gets above resting pace. The Stevie of the title is Stevie Smith, a poet and author who has been somewhat forgotten, whose work sprang from the minutiae of her daily life and the play goes about realising moments from that life.
So we never leave the suburban haven in Palmers Green that she shared with her beloved aunt but for the flights of fancy in Stevie’s mind. Wanamaker skilfully shows us how poetry was a vital means of expression for this woman, often addressing the audience directly and pulling us into her world where Lynda Baron’s aunt is a beautifully realised presence, a graceful and sensitive depiction of how small pleasures become huge with advancing age.
Chris Larkin also delivers well as the various men of Stevie’s story, the gentlemen callers on whom she never relied too much as she refused to leave her cocoon of safety, even as literary celebrity comes calling. Whitemore’s play ultimately settles on this dichotomy as its key theme – the extraordinariness of such a great mind in such humble surroundings and through Simon Higlett’s set and some great performances, I came to like it a lot. But not love it.