REVIEW: Stevie by Hugh Whitemore at the Chichester Festival Minerva Studio from the life and work of Stevie Smith

‘Not waving but drowning’ is arguably Stevie Smith’s most famous poem.

Yet the audience was waving and cheering when the true life story of one of Britain’s most admired twentieth century poets was recreated on stage.

Zoe Wanamaker took the title role.

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.

Great poets so often are driven by the endless night of depression and despair. It was just so with Stevie Smith. In a life entrapped by middle class values and the straightjacket of unchanging routine - her moments of poetic inspiration were more likely to strike her while Hoovering the carpet.

But despite a suicide attempt and caring for her much loved aunt - played with such matter-of-factness by the wonderfully honest Lynda Baron - Stevie’s work was as rich in rebellion as it was autobiography.

There was humour too. Dark and rich. And only an actress of Ms Wanamaker’s comic skill could mine it dry.

A performance of this stature can make you leave the studio and go straight to the library to reread the poet’s work.