Francesca Millican-Slater is an inadvertent detective. The discovery in a Totnes junk shop of a postcard bearing an enigmatic message which was sent in 1910 to a Miss L Gibbs of Southwark kick-started a process of investigation that was to last a number of years. During this time Millican-Slater combed through census data and various archives until she gradually narrowed the gap between herself and Miss Gibbs.
The resulting show is as much, if not more, concerned with the directions in which her research takes her than with the mystery of the postcard itself. Millican-Slater attacks her project in a manner that borders on the obsessive, interspersing her telling of the story with video recordings of her younger self responding to each small new discovery. She starts to think of Miss Gibbs as, in some ways, her own, forming an emotional connection between herself and this young woman who lived a century ago, a bond which becomes increasingly evident in her voice as she describes the process of historical digging, particularly in the tender, caring way she talks about Miss Gibbs and her family.
The stage is scattered with the debris of Millican-Slater’s investigation – a quilting of train tickets, maps, and photographs – and, as she speaks, she lays each newly unearthed document and certificate in a line on the floor at her feet, a visual representation of the trail of discovery, the piecing together of the past. She has a chatty, open and engaging performance style, which is reflected in the way the audience’s discussions about her discoveries continue long after the piece has come to an end.
Though Millican-Slater was only able to discover the bare bones of Miss Gibbs’ existence – the births, marriages and deaths – this is enough for a loose-lined portrait of the person, and the world in which she lived, to start to take shape. The obvious point of reference for an exercise like this is the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and the resultant mania for genealogy, though what makes the piece all the more interesting is Millican-Slater’s decision not to delve around in her own family’s past. There is a sense of serendipity in the way the postcard first spoke to her and demanded that its story be told, but she’s also careful to interrogate her own motivations in making this show; she remains both aware and wary of turning Miss Gibbs’ life into “her own personal soap opera.”
There’s also a thread of nostalgia running through the show about the way our relationship with the past is changing; the internet is making raw data more accessible but it is also making the process of research less personal, less hands-on, and dulling the joy of the chance discovery, the beautiful coincidence.
In the end Miss Gibbs and her postcard are just the seeds in a piece about what it is to be remembered and to be missed, about the need to leave our own particular print on this world and on the people in it while we are able. By this reckoning, though long dead, Miss Gibbs still exists in the context of Millican-Slater’s show and her story will now be spread further still, contained in the memories of those who have seen it.