The only time director Christopher Morahan worked with Zoë Wanamaker previously was on the 1997 mini-series A Dance To The Music Of Time.

It came out the same year Wanamaker starred in the Olivier Award-winning title role of Sophocles’ Electra, which opened at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester.

Now the two are reuniting to open this year’s Chichester Festival season, with a revival of Hugh Whitemore’s biographical drama concerning one of the 20th century’s most-loved female poets, Stevie Smith, who died in 1971.

“Zoë had such a small scene in A Dance To The Music Of Time, but I thought she was utterly memorable,” says Morahan, who directed part of the television mini-drama based on Anthony Powell’s 12-novel cycle.

“It was a great pleasure to work with her at that time. When I was asked to direct this, I was delighted and flattered she wanted to work with me. I admire her very much.”

Stevie tells the story of the poet’s suburban life living with her aunt, the Lion Of Hull, all told through the medium of her own verse.

“I saw the original production of Stevie starring Glenda Jackson,” recalls Morahan. “I admire and remember the play – it’s delightful, it has an interesting range and richness.

“The portrait of Stevie is marvellous and theatrically very powerful. It became a revelation to me – I didn’t read poetry very much but I found it a very moving piece.”

Wanamaker’s Stevie is joined by her aunt, played by Open All Hours star Lynda Baron, and Chris Larkin as The Man, playing a range of characters from former lovers to Death. The three characters not only converse together through poetry but also relate Smith’s words directly to the audience.

“It’s sometimes put forward as a thought or a train of thought rather than a poem,” says Morahan.

“The dialogue works particularly well without telling the audience it is a poem at that particular moment. The poetry expresses what she wants to say. Hugh paints an extraordinary portrait of her.

“I know Hugh Whitemore very well, we have worked successfully together in one way or another over a number of years.”

Also in 1997, the pair worked together on A Letter Of Resignation starring Edward Fox – another play inspired by a real person, former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

“I find it extremely satisfying to find work which is based on history and reality,” says Morahan. “It means one has to be very true to what one is doing – you’re not talking about fiction, it’s about real people, real creative artists. You’re finding out about human nature and love and work and wit and anger and so on, all the things that make a writer.”

He has been enjoying rediscovering Smith’s work with the cast as part of the preparation for the play.

“Her writing is so fresh, bright and witty,” he says. “But it’s also painful and true. It’s vastly entertaining. She is a remarkable artist.”

Hull-born Smith began her writing career as a novelist, with the first of three books, Novel On Yellow Paper, published in 1936.

Her first collection of poetry came out a year later under the title A Good Time Was Had By All.

At the age of three she moved with her mother and sister to a suburban semi-detached house in Palmers Green, north London. She lived for all her adult life there, working during the day as a private secretary and coming home to her “Lion Aunt”, who moved in when her mother fell ill.

“I think she understood and loved suburban life,” says Morahan.

“Stevie loved her aunt immensely. They kept the house full of flowers and books all higgledy- piggledy. Her relationship with her aunt was a very human one.”

It was the collection Not Waving But Drowning, published in 1957, which made Smith’s name.

The 12-stanza-long title work is regarded as a classic in the 20th-century poetry canon, telling of a lonely death of a man gone too far out to sea, which turns into a wider metaphor for the man’s life.

Death was to figure highly in Smith’s thoughts and poetry throughout her life after she developed tubercular peritonitis at the age of five.

“She understood that death can be a safety net,” says Morahan. “In death you are no longer diverted by the difficulties of life – not that we should all kill ourselves, but that one has a right over one’s life.

“It’s an idea that goes back thousands of years. Faiths are built around a heaven where you know there is a peace in death.”