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Finding Nana: Playwright Jane Upton on The Journey Behind Her Play

19 January 18 words: Jane Upton

When Notts playwright Jane Upton went to the Isle of Wight to reconnect with childhood memories of her Nana, her whole life changed. As her play Finding Nana comes to Nottingham for the first time next month, Jane talks about the inspiration behind the work...

It was on the corner of a cold, dark street on a trip to the Isle of Wight that I met my husband. I’d never laid eyes on him before but my friend back home had suggested I meet her brother-in-law for dinner. “You’re sad,” she said, “He’s sad. What have you got to lose?”

I was 32 and in the Isle of Wight to find my Nana. Well, not exactly; I was there to find a feeling, I think. From the year I was born until the age of 15, my whole family and I spent two weeks of the summer holidays there. Nana and I shared the same room in the same hotel every year – room seventeen of the Mayfair Hotel, Shanklin. It had pink bedspreads, a bath so small Nana had to bend her knees, and a window overlooking the little swimming pool.

Nana was always old, nut brown and wrinkled. She had twinkly eyes, chicken fillets for arms and she loved me so hard. She was always proud of me for the smallest, silliest things, she made me the best fancy dress costumes and falling asleep in the bed as she turned the pages of her paperback was probably the greatest feeling of contentment I’ve ever experienced.

In 1995, we went to the Isle of Wight for the last time. My sister was off to university in the autumn, my other grandparents couldn’t quite get up the steep hill from the beach anymore and Nana was getting forgetful. Everything was starting to change. I remember crying in my bed after the last journey home knowing that we would never go back as a big family.

Fifteen years later, after over a decade with dementia, Nana died in a bed that wasn’t her own. In the last few days, I lay by her skeletal body in the palliative care home and sung songs from Calamity Jane, The Sound of Music and all the other shows she loved. It calmed her down and made me feel close to her, even though I wasn’t sure if she knew it was me. The last time I saw her was in the funeral parlour; her shrunken face and tiny lifeless frame was nothing like my Nana, who was always singing and dancing and playing up to the crowd. I missed her so much.

After that I went a bit wild. I felt numb and open and like there were no walls or ceilings or floors. It was like I was falling, my stomach flipping and dropping. I had that feeling you get when you’ve been punched in the face; pins and needles in your nose, or something. I split up with my lovely long-term partner, moved back in with my parents, had flings with a few undesirables and stayed out all hours while holding down a full time job in marketing. I’d also started writing for theatre in the last year or so; an unexpected turn in my career and something that had added to my instability.

One day a friend suggested I apply for a project being run by (the sadly now ceased) Theatre Writing Partnership in Nottingham. It was called Making Tracks and they were offering money to artists to make a journey that would lead to a piece of theatre. My friend thought I should go back to the island and write about my grief. So I applied, and a few weeks later, on a freezing February afternoon, I was in the Mayfair Hotel Car Park. 

There were skips and mattresses outside, and the once sparkling white exterior was dull and grey. The pool was full of concrete and the grass was overgrown. Although the owner had promised me room seventeen, on arrival she told me it was uninhabitable and put me in room 2 in the basement. There was no one else in the whole hotel, just me and a bunch of builders who came and went at all hours.

Eventually the owner agreed to let me go into room seventeen with my laptop to write. I still remember the feeling in my stomach as she led me up the stairs and down the oh-so familiar corridors to our old room. It smelt exactly the same and when she opened the grey metal door catch; I half expected Nana to be standing there in her pink dressing gown looking out at the sea. I spent hours up there and I almost cancelled the meeting with my friend’s brother-in-law. But it would have been late notice so I went.

I remember meeting him on a corner near his house. As we walked into town I told him everything about Nana and my project, even the fact I’d put my face on the carpet where nana used to kneel and sew our costumes. “I must sound mad,” I said. “Not mad,” he said, “lovely.”

We met up the next few nights and on the last day I bought him the book he loved most as a child and hung it in a carrier bag on his front door handle. Back home, I didn’t dare mention him in an interview for Theatre Writing Partnership. I didn’t want them to think I’d been distracted. But I did tell them cryptically that the trip had probably changed my life.

A few months later I left my job and went to live in the Isle of Wight with Mark. He drives me mad most of the time but he felt like family from the moment we met. In 2014, we moved back to the Midlands to have a baby. We called her Edith, after Nana of course, because she’s the reason we met.

I finally wrote my play Finding Nana with the help of Kate Chapman from Theatre Writing Partnership and lots of other people along the way. Last summer, Nottingham theatre company New Perspectives took it to the Edinburgh fringe where we received great reviews. And now it’s coming home to Nottingham. Directed by the brilliant Katie Posner, the play is a tribute to my mad, hilarious, beautiful little Nana who would have been 100 this year. What better time to bring her back?

Finding Nana runs from 7-10 February at Nottingham Playhouse before embarking on a rural tour around Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire. It ends at Derby Theatre on March 24. 

New Perspectives website

Nottingham Playhouse website

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