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.

The Cane – Royal Court – with Nicola Walker

Magnificent cast featuring Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed and Alun Armstrong

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

A much loved teacher is about retire but his home is under siege by children from his school. His estranged daughter comes to visit her parents. His regular use of the cane many years earlier has sparked the protest but when we discover that his school has been declared to be failing by Ofsted, it seems the protest may be more against the old ways of doing things- the patriarchial society in which men dominated through the use of violence.

I’m not sure how much I believed the set up or the ending but Mark Ravenhill has written a powerful script. It not only creates a tense atmosphere and powerful dialogue as the characters prowl round each other and take vicious swipes, it also provokes a lot of thought. It’s a tribute to it that the more you think about it, the more complex it seems.

Although this play is primarily an attack on the patriarchy, its strength is that it also asks questions about why people behave the way they do and whether today’s institutions and the people embracing them- in this case Academies and Ofsted- have more similarities than differences.

Production photo of Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Because, although the play is primarily about this teacher, it is also about any of us who work for or deal with institutions. The daughter is heavily involved in academies and describes an almost zombie like atmosphere of pupils facing front and silence in the corridors that is supposedly because the pupil comes first but actually sounds like the way the people come first in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

She talks about the way schools must conform to Ofsted’s way of looking at things and use their language. She has a rigid belief in her institution as much as her father believes in his.

Powerful script by Mark Ravenhill superbly directed by Vicky Featherstone

We gain insights into why the father, inheriting a culture of violence, continued it because it was his duty. This sounds very like the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuses of Nazi concentration camp soldiers. It’s clear he liked exercising the power. But his daughter is no angel. In fact, in many ways the play is about her because the older generation are on the way out. The question becomes, does the present generation with its controls and testing, have its own kind of cane and its own closed mindedness.

She is manipulative and coercive in trying to get her own way. She doesn’t want reconciliation, she wants revenge. We begin to suspect she has orchestrated the protest. We see her too flaring into violent language and acts of violence, not dissimilar to her father.

Production shot of Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court
Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

The action takes place in a sitting room, designed by Chloe Langford, that is almost bare of furniture and decoration, so it feels like a cage or a boxing ring. The protagonists are trapped there and nothing distracts from what the they say and do in Vicky Featherstone‘s brilliant production.

All three actors give subtle, nuanced performances. Maggie Steed as the oppressed, bullied, proudly loyal wife but also nasty when cornered.  Alun Armstrong with calm reasonableness, red faced anger and underlying weakness all somehow present whichever was being displayed at the time. And Nicola Walker so natural in the way she talks and moves, so incredibly still when she was observing the others, making her reasonable character’s unreasonable behaviour deeply disturbing.

At the end, the play is pulled back to look at the sins of the now ageing patriarchal generation but such is the intelligence of this fine play you question your own values.

The Cane continues at Royal Court Theatre London until 26 January 2019

Watch the YouTube review of The Cane starring Nicola Walker on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel below