“That one thing we all wish we could have more of once they are gone. Time.”
Finding Nana is a one-woman show about dealing with the grief that comes with losing somebody special to you. This autobiographical play by Jane Upton features Stacey Evans as Jane, who is coming to grips with the death of her beloved Nana. In a frank, yet intimate presentation, the audience is guided directly through her childhood memories of summer holidays together to Nana’s last moments in a palliative care home. Finding Nana covers plenty of themes, from the unreliable nature of our own memories, to facing our own mortality and learning to love again after loss. The piece attempts to present these equally in creating a piece that allows the audience to simultaneously empathise with Jane, and recognise their own experiences through these situations.
As the show starts, we are thrown in Jane’s childhood on an annual summer holiday with her family to the Isle of Wight. Jane and her Nana share the same room (Room 17) each year, and it is here that their relationship is cemented. From the start, Evans is charismatic and energetic. Whether sitting on the bed or dancing around the room, she addresses the audience directly and invites us into Jane’s memory. However, the character of Jane is slightly under-developed and difficult to empathise with. Although we are initially welcomed into her life and urged to recognise our own grief, as the show progresses the audience takes the usual backseat, settling into the role of voyeurs rather than anything more active. Upton surely possesses immense bravery to share her heart with us in such an honest way, and the strength she shows in allowing her trauma to be relived in front of strangers over and over again is admirable. One wishes, however, that there were more opportunities in which the audience could relate their own experiences, and conclusively share Jane’s heartache.
The set is minimalistic. A mobile bed takes centre stage and morphs into a multitude of locations. As Evans moves it around the stage herself, Jane’s determination to remember her Nana becomes ever more apparent. By allowing the audience to witness these scene changes, we were welcomed into Jane’s state of mind and recognise the depth of her grief. The stage is encased by large wooden pillars, not unlike the pillars the audience imagines support the structure of Room 17. Highlighting the destruction of the room and trapping Evans in an enclosed space, these pillars establish a deeply intimate affair whilst simultaneously symbolising Jane’s emotional trauma. Projectors give the audience a list of characteristics, items, and events that Jane particularly remembers about her grandmother. The list goes on and on and is often referred to in subtle ways throughout the performance–emphasising her desperation to commemorate Nana’s life. This simple application keeps the stage design clean whilst giving us a window into Jane’s mind. The multi-use props work well to create the different memories the audience experiences and bring playful moments to an otherwise mildly depressing story. The manipulation of Nana’s dressing gown is particularly engaging, as it allows us to recognise Jane through her happiest and darkest memories with her grandmother. The bed compartments are an inventive way to store props and the designer, Sara Perks, should be congratulated for enlivening the creativity of the piece.
The lighting, orchestrated by Alexandra Stafford, must also be mentioned for transporting us through multiple settings with grace and ease. From a ferry to inside Jane’s mind, the memories are established inventively and the lighting creates an atmosphere which justly represents each one.
Overall, the story was a tad muddy. It is often unclear what stage of Jane’s life the audience is watching, and though it is always revealed eventually, this is through the writing rather than the acting or what is physically present in terms of set design. Additionally, the memory scenes are not given the equal attention and sensitivity they deserve. Many of them are rushed, and it is difficult for the viewer to fully empathise with the character in those moments. Performing a one-woman show is no easy feat, and I applaud Evans wholeheartedly, but had more focus being put into distinguishing different characters, the comedic elements of the text would have been come to the forefront, and would also have made the darkest moments more poignant. Furthermore, the presentation of themes is sometimes a bit forced; the audience feels obligated to feel and react in a particular way, rather than remaining autonomous in their empathy. There is no doubt some incredibly upsetting moments in the story, but confusing staging results in tepid or undesired emotional responses throughout the piece. The exploration of unreliable memories is most interesting. Through lighting and voiceover, this is portrayed in a subtle way that leaves the audience questioning their very beings.
Finding Nana is a confused piece. There is no question of Jane Upton’s talent; weaving quirky one-liners with heartfelt monologues that leave audiences expecting the unexpected, and ultimately portraying the scrambling brain of a person dealing with bereavement. Stacey Evans brings warmness to her character that makes the piece truly personal and affectionate. However, with more care on the multiple-roling, and focus on determining the audience’s purpose this piece could become a lot sharper and more emotionally engaging.
Finding Nana continues on a nationwide tour throughout February and March 2018. For more information on where to see the production visit here.