Her most famous poem talked about a man “much too far out all my life and not waving but drowning”. Similarly Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play, drawing on text from Stevie Smith’s own work, presents both the surface happi-ness of the poet and her lion aunt living in their Palmers Green home, and delves into the depths which produced the poetry still enjoyed by new generations of readers.

The result is a beautifully-told character study veering between Smith’s ready wit and a subtle melancholy underscored by Jason Carr’s slow scoring.

Zoë Wanamaker is both charismatic and eccentric as the chain-smoking title character, decked out in homemade dresses and surrounded by piles of books, while Lynda Baron’s beloved Aunt gently denounces her “soppy writing” as “stuff and nonsense”.

Baron’s gradual ageing in the play provokes genuine sadness in a well-judged performance.

But it is Chris Larkin’s role as the multi-faceted Man who allows access beneath the waves. He plays rejected suitor Freddie, an inquisitive journalist, a cheery friend-turned-chauffeur to the ageing literary celebrity, and a spirit-like narrator joining the dots.

This subtle but affecting play fully deserves a West End transfer, with the trio setting the bar high for this year’s Chichester season.