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Posts Tagged ‘June Barrie’

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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This was the first Beckett play I ever saw; 35 years ago, before I left Bristol for London. I’ve seen it three times since (including this one) but it’s one of those plays where your first time will probably never be repeated. A tour de force for an actress – for me June Barrie, Rosaleen Linehan, Fiona Shaw & now Juliet Stevenson – it’s still, somewhat astonishingly, more radical than anything else current.

Winnie spends the first act buried up to her waist and the second up to her neck. In previous productions, it has been a free-standing mound; in Vicki Mortimer’s striking design there is a cliff behind and an occasional light avalanche of scree. It glistens a little like gold in the bright lighting. Though we also see and hear Winnie’s husband Willie occasionally, it’s a virtual monologue as she empties her handbag and obsessively lays out its contents, including a gun, in front of her. The dialogue seems pointless, with more than a touch of sexual innuendo, though nothing is ever pointless in Beckett, just obtuse.

In this production, the contrast between the light(ish) first act and the somewhat bleak second act is greater than I remember. Winnie seemed louder and more shrill, particularly when she is barking instructions at Willie. The infamous bell has become a loud buzz. They stay frozen in character at the end as the audience applaud, presumably until we’ve all left the auditorium. This is my first exposure to director Natalie Abrahami and she makes as much impact as her former Gate colleague Carrie Cracknell did with A Dool’s House here last year.

It probably isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it’s great to see it one more time and Juliet Stevenson makes the role her own. David Beames has to take a back seat, well hole, until his big moment in the light, dressed to kill as it were, or as it maybe, at the end.

Still ground-breaking after all these years.

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