My grandmothers are magnificent storytellers; able to bring the written word to life and intricately illustrate their memories in such a way that even after years of listening to the same stories, I remain as enraptured as I was in my childhood. This same sentiment is at the heart of Florence ‘Flo’ Smith – Now and Then, but the execution doesn’t create the desired effect.
Written and directed by Christopher Saul, Florence ‘Flo’ Smith – Now and Then was created from transcripts of tape recordings taken in Saul’s grandmother’s North London home in the spring of 1969, recounting her life and all the tales and memories she’d collected along the way. The original interviews now exist as a one woman show, with Flo being brought to life by Ursula Mohan.
The script itself is a chronological account of Flo’s life, from her earliest memory right the way through to when the tapes were recorded. And it’s an eventful life: two World Wars, three children and several different homes. By the end of the performance I know the ins and outs of her life and yet, I am still left feeling I don’t know her. For a script penned by the title character’s grandson, I expect to be able to pinpoint Flo’s unique flare, her little quirks and habits, but she remains a stranger to me, identifiable only as the archetype of a grandmother figure.
As the director, Saul stages his grandmother’s story from the living room of the home he interviewed her in all those years ago. It seems the perfect choice of set, able to provide the insight that can always be found by looking into someone’s home. And yet, the staging still lacks familiarity. The stage may replicate Flo’s home, but it is navigated like a set, with the precise staging contradicting the natural, relaxed way someone would truly exist in their own home, destroying the illusion once again.
Mohan’s performance presents similar problems. Her performance feels like an impression of Flo, rather than an interpretation, presenting the character instead of embodying them. The performance remains reasonably charming, but similarly to the script, there is something that doesn’t feel entirely truthful; that the real Flo is somewhere within this show, but the audience never get to see her properly.
Between the script, the direction and the performance, I’m not entirely sure if one has affected the others poorly or whether it’s a combination of the three that doesn’t work. This show undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, but for a piece which is so personal, it is disappointingly generic.
Florence ‘Flo’ Smith – Now & Then is playing various venues. For more information and tickets, visit Flo Now and Then online.