Nottinghamshire playwright Jane Upton finds herself, once more, on the cusp of a touring theatre production of her play Finding Nana. Upton’s theatre writing talents are clearly on the ascendant. Jane Upton wrote her first play Bones in 2010 which was produced by local company Fifth Word, directed by Esther Richardson. Bones went on to get five star reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. Also produced by Fifth Word, her brilliantly unnerving play All The Little Lights, focussing on the lives of three young women who find themselves on the fringes of society and extremely vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of paedophile predators, won regional and London acclaim. From Nottingham Playhouse the award winning All The Little Lights transferred to The Arcola Theatre London.
In association with Lincolnshire One Venues – the New Perspectives produced Finding Nana did exceptionally well at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. It will soon be winning over new audiences in a tour starting at Nottingham Playhouse Neville Studio 7th – 10th February and then touring to Derbys, Leics, Lincs, Yorks, and Worcs. In the rural locations there will be a thirty minute second half where audience members will share a poem and memories about grand-parents that will have been devised in a workshop during the day with New Perspectives.”
The Stage called Finding Nana ‘Smart and Understated’ and British Theatre.com applauded the play as being ‘Beautifully Crafted’. These excellent critical reviews for Jane Upton culminated in making her joint winner of the George Devine Most Promising Playwright Award 2016.
Directed by Katie Posner, Finding Nana takes a theatrically inspired Jane Upton back in time to 2012 and room seventeen at the Mayfair Hotel in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. This very room was the historical focus of writing the play about her relationship with her beloved maternal grandmother, Nana Edith. From her birth year to the age of fifteen the young Jane Upton and her family spent two weeks of the year on holiday there.
Historically, Upton recalls that Nana Edith was always ‘old, nut brown – had twinkly eyes and had chicken fillets for arms’. Nana Edith (born 1918) bestowed a great deal of love on her grand-daughter Jane Upton and had great pride in Upton’s early successes. Her Nana was always singing and dancing but in later years succumbed to dementia and died in a bed that wasn’t her own. Jane Upton recalls being by her bedside in those difficult later years and attempting to cheer her up, until her Nana passed away, by singing songs from Calamity Jane and The Sound of Music. Nana Edith passed away in 2011. Jane Upton returned to the then near derelict hotel in 2012 to research and write Finding Nana. The project was supported by Kate Chapman of the now (sadly) defunct Theatre Writing Partnership. The play is a tribute to her mad, hilarious and beautiful little Nana who would have been 100 this year and is a play about family, dementia and grief but mostly about unconditional love. It is also about a desperate need to capture memories before they disappear.
Jane Upton reflects on how she, as a playwright, crafts the blend of humour, personal caring, sadness and a memorial in her play Finding Nana.
“After Nana died, I was so scared of forgetting her that I sat sobbing in a pub one night just pouring memories onto a page for hours. I didn’t know at the time, but that stream of consciousness and those emotions would become the basis for this play.
One of the challenges of writing an autobiographical play is you have to remember that you’re writing for an audience. At some point you have to detach yourself and ask “is this self-indulgent? Does it work as a play? Is there tension and intrigue?” I think honesty is the most important thing. Those difficult details and nuances that seem so personal to you are often the things that people connect most with. The things that are hard to say are always the most interesting. But then you also need the freedom to invent stuff too – to make sure it all works as a piece of theatre.
I wanted to make sure the play reflected my relationship with Nana – of course it was awful at the end when she was so ill but our lives were full of love and fun so that needed to be in there too. I hope the play will prompt other people to remember their own grandparents and talk about them. I like to imagine the foyer after the play packed full of floating grandparent memories.” Jane Upton
Interview by Phil Lowe