It’s the night of Eurovision 2021 and writer-performer Hannah Maxwell and her nan are watching along together. Hannah has moved back in with her grandmother in Bedford after her grandfather died, and life is a timetabled round of medication monitoring, countdown watching and microwave meals: safe to say that it’s less queer performance and London nightlife and more uncomfortable discussions about intimate health issues and Saga holidays with the next-door neighbour. It’s a little stifling to say the least. And then, Barbara Pravi arrives onstage representing France. Delicately beautiful, with a vocally strong and moving act (ultimately claiming second place), a crush is born.
This work defies categorisation: it’s a poignant and personal story about bereavement and the frustrating reality of caring for older relatives. It’s a clever homage to the music and beauty of Barbara Pravi herself. It’s interactive (at times, audience members are on stage enacting Hannah’s fantasy with her) and full of repeated, fourth wall-breaking moments. It’s also a wonderful portrayal of the comfort that an inner monologue can provide when creating a highly complex fantasy that becomes dangerously close to inappropriate stalking. And then the mood changes to a more reflective tone: a poignant reminder of addiction which manages to avoid mawkishness.
Nan, Me & Barbara Pravi is very funny, often laugh-out-loud, and still intensely moving. It’s hard to know if this is autobiographical or just a series of extremely well-made observations. The writing is delicious: fluent, dextrous, and poetic. Simultaneously collective and personal, this is a tale that we all relate to but is marked with enough honesty and plot surprises to skirt cliche.
And at the heart of this is Maxwell herself: singing, dancing, miming with a mop (among other household accoutrements) and embodying every range of emotion you can imagine. Accomplished and nuanced. What a joy. And just when you think it can’t get any better, the performance ends with the full rendition of Pravi’s Eurovision entry, Voilà. Sung live, simply, with no unnecessary exaggerations, and as a result? Utterly beautiful.
The Staging is simple, yet effective: a one-woman show, the character of Nan is symbolised by a shawl over a chair and an occasional off-stage voice. Graphics showing handwritten, everyday lists of medication and reminders are projected against the back of the stage. It’s enough to remind you of the domestic setting but simple enough to be non-intrusive. Occasionally, video clips of Eurovision acts serve to historically place the piece.
Productions like these are extremely hard to come by. It’s nebulous – that thing whereby someone does or says enough, but not too much. It’s enough to evoke an emotional reaction but not overdo it to the extent it becomes saccharine. But Hannah Maxwell nailed it. And in the words of Barbara Pravi: Voilà.
Written by: Hannah Maxwell
Directed by: Len Gwyn.
Produced by Becky Plotnek & Plotnek Productions
Animation by May Kindred-Boothby
Set & Costume Design: Rachel Gammon
Nan, Me & Barbara Pravi plays at Camden People’s Theatre until 17 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.