It’s not a piece that grabs instantly, but by the end you’ll have been completely sucked into the suburban world of the fascinating but fairly-forgotten poet Stevie Smith.
The play argues that there’s an extraordinary mind at work in very ordinary surroundings, and maybe it doesn’t quite make the case.
But Zoë 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.
Simon Higlett’s detailed set is superb; and the costumes similarly capture an era. The actors do the rest as Smith, rarely a moment or two away from breaking into verse, recalls her life from her Palmers Green sitting room, a life she shares with one of poetry’s least likely companions, her beloved aunt, beautifully played by Lynda Baron who manages to make simple good-heartedness more than interesting.
Baron captures the ageing process marvellously, and there is something deeply poignant in the excitement with which she awaits her lunch at an age where there’s really not much else she can do.
Chris Larkin offers excellent support as the various men in the tale, even if a couple of them are frustratingly unidentified. Larkin distinguishes them all with skill, not least when he somewhat curiously delivers one of them as an impersonation of his own mother.
But really it is Wanamaker’s night with a performance which eventually holds you entirely. This was never going to edge-of-your-stuff style. By the end it delivers all the pleasures of a portrait beautifully drawn.
And, relaxing into the part, Wanamaker was at her absolute best when an unfortunate act of clumsiness by a member of the audience interrupted proceedings. Wanamaker dealt with it with terrific presence of mind and wit – a remarkable feat given the pressure of the night.