REVIEW: Florence Smith: Now & Then, Bear Pit Theatre

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Ursula Mohan as Flo Smith

Florence Smith: Now & Then, Bear Pit Theatre, 25th February

There’s been much talk of time travel of late. Various ‘time travellers’ have made increasingly bizarre claims in the press, and the top summer read was Matt Haig’s brilliant How to Stop Time.

But the time-travelling encounter I experienced through Florence Smith: Now and Again was by far the most prescient.

It perhaps doesn’t sound much on paper: an elderly lady is in her living room, she talks about her memories for 80 minutes. But this performance was definitely more than the sum of its parts.

Both the one-woman play, and the story behind its creation, start in 1969. Drama student Christopher Saul, as part of his dissertation, uses his new Grundig reel-to-reel to record his grandmother, Florence Smith, telling her life story. She is feisty, funny and frank – a working-class London girl who has endured poverty, injustice, a troubled upbringing, love and loss. Her reminisces intermingle with world events, and it is this intimate biographical detail framed against the background politics that give her gossipy ramblings a historical importance and unique insightfulness.

In real life, actor Christopher dutifully wrote up the recordings of his paternal grandmother, earning him a distinction for his efforts… and time passed.

Florence died in 1989, aged 96. Chris, in the meantime, became a successful actor, settled in Stratford — his most recent role was in Imperium at the RSC. But Chris had always remembered Florence’s recordings, and while the tapes had got lost in the mists of time, he still had her written words. These were turned into this one-woman show, in collaboration with its star Ursula Mohan — also a well-known actress, who has played everything from a female Lear to a ‘hottie’ in On The Buses.

It is only the show’s second outing, and I worried about the intensity of witnessing a solo performance, but Ursula is at ease as Flo, and entirely convincing (even the odd line slip became part of her enthusiastic delivery!) as a spunky old dear who has seen it all.

The stories she retells are incredibly vivid, and transport the audience magically back to those moments in time: the horror the Zeppelins dropping their bombs during the First World War; the traumatic asthma-related death of her husband who had suffered a mustard gas attacked during the war… The stories are human and relatable. Florence represents the body politic – our shared experiences throughout time. And she is one time traveller that’s certainly worth listening to. Hopefully she will visit us again soon!