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Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Whitemore’

Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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It’s 35 years since I first saw this rarely revived Hugh Whitemore play about the poet Stevie Smith and I recall being rather captivated by it, perhaps as much by the performance of Bristol Old Vic regular June Barrie as much as anything else. Unlike most recent revivals, I’m afraid this hasn’t stood the test of time, though again I was captivated by Zoe Wanamaker in the title role.

Today, it seems odd to write a major play about a minor poet; perhaps that’s the crux of it – the play has faded as the poets legacy has? What seemed a beautifully written biographical piece now seems a bit ordinary. It’s largely a monologue, Stevie telling us her life story interspersed with her poems and interrupted occasionally by her beloved aunt and some of the men in her life. The later life in the second half is more interesting than the early life in the first, perhaps because the actual life was too. However, I was left thinking why would you write a play about her?

What is not in question is Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Stevie, transformed by frumpy frocks and schoolgirl hair. She often seems to be talking to you personally as she scans the audience, making eye contact and drawing you in to her story. There’s excellent support from Lynda Baron as the aunt who shares her life and Chris Larkin as all of the men who are ‘extras’ in her life story, and at times as narrator. Simon Higlett’s huge period Palmers Green living room is finely detailed, becoming expressionistic as the top left seems to morph into the trees outside, but it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense to go to for a pay that is so static, hardly using such a superb creation.

I’d like to see more Whitmore revivals (Breaking the Code anyone? More timely!) but on this form I wonder if his style has indeed had its day. The school-kids in the front row of an extended arc configuration seemed to be totally unengaged (which must have been as distracting for Zoe Wanamaker as it was for me). Worth seeing for the fine performance, though and for once a play that is as conservative as the Hampstead Theatre audience!

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