I have to admit that the main reason I was drawn to Mark Ravenhill’s Angela was Pam Ferris. As a child, I loved the Darling Buds of May, and the video tape was a regular feature of cosy afternoons on the sofa. The idea of a radio play with the voice of Ma Larkin was too tempting to resist. Pam Ferris is fantastic as the title character, struggling with dementia in her old age; I soon forgot those sunny days on the farm and was utterly gripped by this moving and intense play.
Angela tells the story of Ravenhill’s mother, from her youth through to raising her son, and then her death. The play doesn’t hold back on dealing with some incredibly upsetting issues, dementia being a key theme, as well as miscarriage and struggles with mental health. At times this emotion was too much to cope with; personal experiences made parts of the play that focus on Angela’s dementia incredibly difficult to listen to.
Someone once explained that memories are like books on a shelf, and as dementia worsens, the books start to fall off from top to bottom. Your most recent memories are at the top of the shelf with your childhood memories at the bottom. In the play, this upsetting and cruel trait of dementia is cleverly explored through a recurring memory, based around Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Recollections of seeing a production of the story with her son Mark, and a performance of the story that he recorded as a child, regularly crop up. The memories of this tale and her son’s love of it haunt her in her old age, and in one strikingly chilling moment she believes that the fox is standing in front of her. It’s raw and honest, and a beautiful tribute to Ravenhill’s own mother, although it was surprising to learn that the play is autobiographical – he doesn’t paint himself as a young boy in the kindest light!
The entire cast are spectacular and there is not a weak link to be found. Toby Jones, as Angela’s husband Ted, sensitively portrays the hurt and confusion experienced on realising that a loved one doesn’t know who you are, or even that they believe that you are there to hurt them. Matti Houghton’s performance as Young Angela is heart-breaking at times; the honest revelations of how she struggled with depression and becoming a mother are performed with raw emotion and sensitivity. Playing the parts of the playwright himself must be a daunting prospect, but young Mark (Jackson Laing) and adult Mark (Joseph Millson) tackle this with great success.
The sound design in this radio play is also flawless. Music is used sparingly but to great effect, while the other sound effects are in no way over done; just the right amount to set the scene but never intrusive to the ear. As a result, it is a fully immersive radio play that has the production values you would expect from a prime-time television drama.
Angela is not an easy listen, with subjects that will resonate with a lot of listeners’ own experiences. Yet, perhaps because it is autobiographical, a love letter to Ravenhill’s own mother, it has real heart and warmth. Although I had tears in my eyes on many occasions throughout the play, I felt like I knew and loved Angela myself and there is no doubt that she would be incredibly proud of having such a stunning play produced to celebrate her life.
Written by: Mark Ravenhill
Directed by: Polly Thomas
Music Composed by: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Sound Design by: John Scott
Produced by: The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Pitlochry Festival Theatre, in association with Naked Productions Ltd and BBC Radio 3
Angela is the first of eight new audio plays from Sound Stage – an online theatre experience of new plays from the best in British theatre. It is available from 26 March to 2 April via the below link.