Fringe Online 2021
An autobiographical audio piece by Mark Ravenhill, which, through the character of his mother, takes us through a time of emergence, of finding yourself and then losing part of you in a life beautifully observed by a woman of both substance and single mindedness. Called Rita by her parents, Angela decided to change her name, she then gets married to a wonderfully devoted husband and has two children, a girl who does not survive and a boy whose rise in the arts is captured early in his dance. It is that dance that serves as a continual motif through the play as he emerges from childhood to the bit part he plays alongside his mother, an early thespian, whose circumstances may never have got beyond the local hall but whose influence is alive and kicking in her son. The final scenes of her demise due to that appalling disease poignantly nestled against the love of her husband she doesn’t recognize, a desire to see her daughter who was lost and the walnut cake that her son may bring when he visits.
As an avid podcast and audio play listener I know that this is a superior example of the genre. Mark Ravenhill exposes his family to us in this piece which has heart written into it and throughout it. The material, however, is only the beginning. But what a start. Deftly managed between poignancy and revelation, Ravenhill’s script shows all of his abilities in one 90 minute play that has his mother as the central figure and his appearances limited to drive the narrative; this about a remarkable woman and not the man she gave us.
From the material it has to be delivered with intimacy and craft by the actors. Much is made of Pam Ferris and Toby Jones as the star vehicles. Perhaps rather ironically given that the intervention in the plot by the writer is kept to a minimum, the stars attracted to performing it are highlighted more than the others, but their performances are impeccably nuanced and timed. They give homage to a man and a woman in love and the support of a child many would have termed “odd” given his wish to be a ballet dancer and to be filmed in costume in the woods; I was even able to forget Toby Jones was ever in the BBC audio drama, The Corrupted.
Ferris and Jones are but elements of the cast and not the whole of it. Jackson Laing as the young Mark is fantastic, as indeed is the young Angela, Matti Houghton. The older Mark, Joseph Tillson has captured the patience of someone dealing with a relative who has Alzheimer’s spot on whilst the ensemble of Nadia Albini, Dermot Daly, Raj Ghatak, Olivier Huband, Alexandra Mathie and Kirsty Stuart provide the rest of the characters with great success; heaven knows how a COVID ensemble could be created but one is evidenced here.
Beautifully directed by Polly Thomas it makes great use of the soundtrack from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and great credit must got to the sound design of John Scott. It has just the right level of intrusion to give context and is not an overbearing soundscape demanding your attention. The opening which has Mark at a ballet class is a highlight. It allows us to have the question posed over why he might be there before we get the rise of Angela, the first putting away of Rita before the return of Rita causes some more questions to be asked of Angela once that dreadful illness has taken hold. This is about the overarching and simply beautiful character of a woman who has been an exceptional support and inspiration to her son.
It is perhaps trite to diminish the effect of this illness whilst highlight the characteristics of a fighter, but this is not a play that seeks to shy away from what is the violence – emotionally and physically – upon a family of this subject. What it does do is give us the person underneath the headline illness. That is quite simply a magical invitation which cannot be ignored. Deftly crafted, with an assured knowledge of the issues around such a telling of the tale and with a brilliantly creative cast this is a worthy 90 minutes of anyone’s time. Whilst we may wonder at what effect it would have been to have both Ferris and Jones onstage at the Lyceum for the run, this is, by far, far from second best.