Humane – an audio play – review

Polly Creed’s clever play about an animal rights protest lifts you up then knocks you down

★★★★

Polly Creed‘s audio play Humane lifts you up with a story about a local community’s animal rights protest before knocking you down with revelations about racism with the group.

Humane, written by Polly Creedand directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is ostensibly a story based on the true events surrounding a ten month protest that took place back in the 1990s against the export of live animals through the small port of Brightlingsea. Mainly through the experiences of two made-up characters, we learn how a community can be brought together by a specific issue.

However, as the six-episode series progresses, we also come to realise that this is more than an inspiring story of a successful campaign in the face of powerful establishment figures and police brutality. We see that friendships formed through a common cause may prove brittle, and that a community may be united against animal cruelty but not against racism. It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows and, following the death of one of the protestors, revelations lead to two of them falling out of bed.

A number of theatre companies have turned to the audio play as a means of continuing to create drama while theatres remained closed. What they don’t always realise is that an audio play isn’t simply a stage play with your eyes shut. It takes special skills to carry it off. Humane is a True Name production and, to the best of my knowledge, the co-founders of the company Polly Creed and Imy Wyatt Corner, have not previously ventured into audio plays, yet they do on the whole succeed.

Most fundamentally, an audio play relies on you the listener to fill in all the missing sensory information. Taking flight from what you’re told, you imagine what the characters and situations look like and sound like and smell like and feel like. Without the visual element of theatre or screen, any shortcoming in the dialogue or voices sabotages the imagination’s work. Which is why Humane is both excellent and flawed.

There are many excellent moments of drama and character development. Middle-class teacher Alice played by Marcia Lecky starts the campaign and, when she experiences problems with her teenage son, we see her gradual awakening to wider issues within the local community. She befriends Linda (Francesca Isherwood), another mother but this time of a constantly crying baby, trapped in a house with her mother-in-law while her soldier husband is in Bosnia. Linda finds the support of Alice a lifesaver and we see her grow in confidence as a result, in a triumph of both writing and acting.

There is one particularly clever use of audio when we discover something about a character’s appearance of which we were previously unaware and whereby the degree of our surprise says something about our own unconscious prejudices.

There are some flat notes. The facts about the campaign are presented in unbelievably detailed news reports. Particularly difficult to swallow are the occasions when the characters themselves churn out statistics as if they’re competing in a memory test.

A challenge in producing an audio play is ensuring that voices can be understood without the visual clues you get with a screen or stage performance. This means the actors are required to articulate even more than usual. In Humane, this is not a problem when we listen to Alice because she is an educated middle-class woman, whom you would expect to pronounce each word clearly. Linda on the other hand is a working-class woman with an Estuary accent to match. Francesca Isherwood is successful in speaking her lines clearly but at the expense of sounding natural. The result is ever so slightly stilted.

Despite these reservations, I found this episodic story a good listen that is not only a tribute to a campaign largely generated by local older people and mothers with children but also an interesting exploration of racism.

Humane is produced by True Name and is available as a podcast

Angela by Mark Ravenhill – review

Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia

★★★★★

Photo of Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents
Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents. Credit: Mark Ravenhill

I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.

Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.

There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.

It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.

And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.

The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.

The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband,  Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.

‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.

The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.

There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.

The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.

I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.

Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more. 

Angela was played on 2628 March and 1 & 2 April 2021 as part of pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com  It can be heard on BBC Sounds.

Click here to watch the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Paul received a free ticket from the producers to review Angela.