Jennifer Lunn must be relieved. Not only did Es and Flo turn out to be a remarkable and captivating play about the strength of unity in the face of adversity, it also persevered through a global pandemic and finally made it to the stage.
The script won a Popcorn Writing Award after plans for a run at 2020’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival were written-off by Covid. Now, at long last, the play has premiered at Wales Millennium Centre, ahead of a scheduled transfer to London’s Kiln Theatre later this June.
Our titular characters are played by Liz Crowther and Doreene Blackstock. Es is a retired teacher in the early stages of dementia and Flo is her loving but troubled partner, in denial about the full extent of Es’ condition. The pair strike a friendship with a carer played by Adrianna Pavlovska – who delivers a spellbinding performance as Beata – and along with her young daughter Kasia, they form a family unit based around Es’ care.
The theme of unity looms throughout the play, with a specific focus on ‘found families’. The arrival of a more ‘official’ relative – daughter in-law Catherine (Michelle McTernan) – sent to meddle by Es’s absent and controlling son, perfectly illustrates how improvised family units can often mean more than blood relations.
Supported by Lunn’s strong, honed dialogue, and detailed direction from Susie McKenna, Blackstock and Crowther portray a relationship that feels immediately genuine. The weight of Es and Flo’s previous 36 years together is consistently present during all of their intimate exchanges.
Their shared history is similarly alluded to throughout a gorgeous set, designed by Libby Watson. A simple living room and kitchen, but littered with memorabilia from the lives these characters have lived. Es and Flo’s memories of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp – another found family – are repeatedly projected as photographs onto a curtain, positioned above the house. A curtain which is later stripped away to reveal a hospital, as lights dim on the house below. I found this particularly powerful. Es’s home is essentially a physical record of a past which is growing ever darker, whilst cold lights are raised on her hospital ward, a physical indicator of her unwelcome future.
I was also struck by the symmetry between the erasure of Flo’s status as Es’s partner, and of Es herself as a human being. In the eyes of Es’ son and in legal terms, their 36 years doesn’t seem to count for much. This obvious injustice is highlighted more so when considering how different Es and Flo might have been treated if they were a heterosexual couple. And despite Es’ debilitating condition, she still retains much of her capacity to engage with life. But like her familial unit, as a person, she is considered less and less as ‘official’. Her life is no longer hers to determine for herself.
At one stage, Es’ confusion over her power of attorney is exploited by Flo, out of desperation to control an uncontrollable situation. It was a shame that this wasn’t explored further, as I initially felt that this was a play about recognising limitations.
There is a clear dilemma for Flo from the outset, in that she is unable to cope with caring for Es alone. Their situation improves only with the help of Beata – but she is being paid for by Es’s son. If he is ousted, how can their support network continue? Overlooking this harsh reality feels like a wasted opportunity to reflect the financial implications of social care, which many families of people living with dementia face.
However, by the curtain call, I realised that this is a play which is first and foremost about how a family – of any kind – can come together and be powerful in the face of adversity. It’s just as successful in delivering this message as it is in engaging its audience, who will leave inevitably moved and entertained, even if the story ultimately favours sentiment over realism.
- By: Jennifer Lunn
- Director: Susie McKenna
- Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan
- Cast Includes: Liz Crowther and Doreene Blackstock
- Wales Millennium Centre and Kiln Theatre, London
- Until: 24/06/2023
- Duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes (including interval)
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