From prison to the stage and back to Tottenham

Gina Moffatt’s remarkable story inspired Emma Dennis-Edwards to write Funeral Flowers, a hit at last year’s Edinburgh fringe. Now, the story has come full circle back to north LondonFrom prison to the stage and back to TottenhamThree years ago, the actor and writer Emma Dennis-Edwards went to Tottenham, north London. Chris Sonnex, then an artistic associate at the Royal Court theatre, “sent me here to write a short play for the Tottenham festival,” she says. “The only stipulation was it’s got to be for the people of Tottenham.”

Dennis-Edwards was introduced to a local business-owner, Gina Moffatt, whose remarkable story influenced Funeral Flowers, a sold-out hit at last summer’s Edinburgh fringe, and winner of the Filipa Bragança award for an outstanding solo theatre performance. Now, three years on from the 10-minute snippet Dennis-Edwards wrote for the Tottenham festival, the play has come full circle. This month sees a run at London Bridge’s new Bunker theatre (under the helm of its new artistic director, Sonnex), before a week at Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Arts Centre.In Edinburgh, Funeral Flowers was a site-specific immersive piece, set in a real flat filled to the brim with flowers. At the Bunker, the stage is still stocked with flowers, courtesy of a local florist who is giving the production unsold stock each night. ‘I found who I really wanted to be when I was in prison’ … Gina Moffatt. Photograph: Dion Wilson

Sitting in the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Dennis-Edwards and Moffatt exhibit a strong rapport, the two of them bouncing off one another’s energy. Dennis-Edwards still seems awed by Moffatt’s story; she speaks with the calm confidence of someone who is used to being told how extraordinary her life has been. “My journey started in Holloway Prison. I was always dating the wrong guy, just being in the middle of everything what you shouldn’t be involved in,” she says. “But I found who I really wanted to be when I was in prison.”

Sentenced to three and a half years for drug offences, Moffatt decided to turn her life around. By the end, “the officers liked me, the governor loved me. I became his PA, got to meet Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair …” she says. Dennis-Edwards cuts in: “That’s only some of the famous people she’s met. Who’s your little mate again, in the Palace?” “Charlesy!” laughs Moffatt. “Uncle Charles. I call him uncle – it’s a Ghanaian thing, everybody’s your uncle. He believes in me.”

The prison governor and a visitor from the Prince’s Trust asked Moffat what she wanted to do when she was released. “I was like: ‘I wanna be a florist.’ I used do family events, decorate, do up the hall. I always thought: ‘How come there’s no black florists on the high road?’”. And so, when she was granted day release, she studied for an NVQ in floristry, keeping her course mates in the dark about returning to prison each night. On her release, the Prince’s Trust got her a unit to sell flowers at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. She started cleaning the cafe to make ends meet, and now she runs it too, serving a mix of Ghanaian and Caribbean dishes alongside teas and coffees, leaving floristry for special events.

Moffatt’s life helped Dennis-Edwards shape protagonist Angelique’s story in Funeral Flowers. “I just thought about this 17-year-old girl who wants to be a florist, and all the things that are stopping her from being able to do that,” she says. “She’s got a dodgy boyfriend, who’s in a gang, and that’s leading her on quite a typical path. Her mum’s in prison, and she’s in care.”Dennis-Edwards plays all the characters in the solo show.

“Angelique is obviously the main character, and there’s Micky her boyfriend, her stepmother, her carer Sam, who’s a queer woman, Rampage, who’s a leader of a gang. I play different people, none of which are roles I would ever be cast in,” she says. “There is a freedom in that. You go to drama school, you play everything and you can be everybody. Then you come out, and it’s like: ‘I look like this, so I’m gonna do that.’” Actors, she continues, can “get to a point where you just do the same thing quite a lot.”

‘I play different people, none of which are roles I would ever be cast in’ ... Emma Dennis-Edwards in Funeral Flowers at the Edinburgh fringe.

‘I play different people, none of which are roles I would ever be cast in’ … Emma Dennis-Edwards in Funeral Flowers at the Edinburgh fringe.

She is excited to be bringing Funeral Flowers back to Tottenham, but nervous. “I think we’re trying to do something that hasn’t really been done before,” she says. “I’ve never seen a show like it in terms of the stuff that I’m talking about. There’s a lot of conversation about rape and sexual assault. We’re doing that properly.” Properly means making it clear to her audience in advance exactly what the show explores.

From prison to the stage and back to TottenhamWhile the use of trigger warnings in the theatre can be contentious, Dennis-Edwards is clear: “My audience’s mental health comes before any surprise at the end. We can’t shy away from what this play talks about. These stories matter. And I’m proud of the script, it’s a good script.” She praises Sonnex’s first season at the Bunker, and his decision to platform the stories of working-class women. “Funeral Flowers is a coming-of-age story. Not everyone’s coming-of-age involves them going on a gap year.”

At the Bunker theatre, London, until 4 May, then at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, 29 May to 1 June.