HOW SWEET THE BIRDS OF AVONDALE…
The room where the poet Stevie Smith lived for over half a century lies before us: chintz, potted geranium, sherry-decanter and stained-glass door. This is Avondale Road in Palmers Green, anytime before her death in 1971. “A house of female habitation”, suburban, settled, un-chic.
That sense of place is vital, and importantly feeds Christopher Morahan’s production. I used to stay just round the corner in the late ‘60s with a friend of Stevie’s and saw her sometimes, though by then her beloved “Lion Aunt” and lifetime companion had died. Simon Higlett’s design stirred instant memories: impossible not to believe that beyond that half-glimpsed hallway the bathroom has a hissing geyser, the fridge a bulbous door.
The clothes are perfect too. There’s the Aunt’s immense comforting floral frock (“Iike a seed-packet” says the poet fondly) and her own shapeless corduroy pinafore dress, so familiar that I swear the 1960‘s Butterick Paper Pattern swam before my eyes from school Needlework. As the decades roll on though the evening, other perfect outfits include a home-dyed dress which appals a mincing literary follower, and memorable glittery tights. These things matter because Whitemore’s play, using much of the droll, dark, truthful poetry and Smith’s only novel, draws power from contrasting a seemingly drab life with the sorrowful, quirkily defiant gift of perception which makes her a heroine of poetry.
Zoe Wanamaker plays Stevie, Lynda Baron her aunt (the curly mass of grey hair truly leonine), and Chris Larkin simply “Man” . He is sometimes narrator, filling in information like the suicide attempt which Stevie prefers to ignore, sometimes the bluff fiancé she could not bear to marry (“He’ll have my heart – if not by gift, his knife will cut it out”). Later the Man is a literary hanger-on, driing her to poetry readings now she is a star. Sometimes he is simply Death:, the “friend at the end of the world” of whom she thought so frequently and welcomingly since at eight she realized that he was a servant she could summon.
It is an immersive experience. Some may find the first half in particular a little slow; maybe it is best if you love Smith’s dry, honest, witty poems and know how it is for your inner drowning to be mistaken for a cheerful wave. Better still if you have a feeling for those female habitations: for obscure suburban secretaries with weak chests from childhood TB but vivid inner lives. Few were songbirds like Stevie, but there were many of them: unsung heroines who lived through wars which took the men and soldiered on with cigarettes and sherry. Smith said “a tired person like me can’t respond to life”, but respond she did, humorous without flippancy and serious without pomposity.
Words invigorated her 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.
box office 01243 781312 to 24 May