Francesca Millican-Slater’s eight-year investigation into a cryptic 1910 postcard culminates in a tale of romantic expectations and real-life tragedy told with genuine charm and insight.
It’s rare to find a performer offering members of the audience a swig from her water-bottle or announcing “jiggle time” at moments when she fears their legs might need stretching, but Francesca Millican-Slater is a rare individual with a unique story to relate. Her conversational style and apparently topsy-turvy set, strewn with papers, maps and a wilting potted plant, disguise an inquiring and determined mind – a mind that loves a mystery.
The discovery in a Totnes shop of a 1910 postcard to one Miss L Gibbs of Southwark, London, bearing the message “Be Careful Tomorrow. A.C.” awakens the detective within Millican-Slater, who determines to find out who Miss Gibbs was and the reasons behind the warning. It’s a process that has taken up the last eight years, although not continuously, and every now and then Millican-Slater refers back to a video recording of what she describes as her skinnier, spottier self, relating her initial findings.It’s a device that not only gives a sense of Millican-Slater’s semi-obsessive nature, it feeds into her central theme, of remembering and being remembered.
This is not a drama in the traditional sense, more a presentation in the manner of Spalding Gray’s “Swimming To Cambodia” – only without the despair – where the journey is as important, if not more so, than its conclusion. Millican-Slater adopts the characters of a psychic and a philosophical drunk, but these moments apart she remains resolutely herself. Not that this is an act of narcissism. We get to know little about Millican-Slater: her parents are divorced, there was a man she was hugely in love with, another who makes her laugh, and she has a best friend from infancy who also acts as her producer but that’s about it. Instead the focus is on the investigation and Millican-Slater’s fantasies of where it might lead.
Despite her protestations of not knowing much about history, the girl has clearly done her homework. 1910 saw the nascent women’s movement coming to public consciousness and Millican-Slater imagines her Miss Gibbs a suffragette activist, devoted to the cause. The truth turns out to be a lot more prosaic, but no less moving for that. The show is also partly about the changing nature of research – facilities that were once free to access now charging as family genealogy becomes big business, the 1911 census being made available three years ahead of schedule – and partly, as mentioned before, about remembering, about weighting oneself onto the world, certain in the knowledge that at some point one will have to leave it.
Not that this is a morbid reflection on mortality, far from it. Francesca Millican-Slater has produced a life-affirming piece of work, fuelled both by her subject matter and her own infectious personality, that gives hope to all: that somehow, in some way, we will be remembered.