Angela review – Mark Ravenhill's tale of dance and dementia

Available online
The playwright takes us inside the mind of his late mother in a poignant audio play that dramatises her shifting sense of self

Anyone who has observed dementia at close quarters is likely to recognise the unspoken pain contained in Mark Ravenhill’s autobiographical audio drama about his late mother’s Alzheimer’s. But rather than showing us the effects of Angela’s dementia on himself and his father, Ted, the playwright gives primacy to her inner voice and confusions, building a rich subjectivity despite the accompanying sadness.

This play is the first in a series for Sound Stage, an audio-digital theatre platform created by the Royal Lyceum theatre and Pitlochry Festival theatre that aims to give its audience the online experience of going to the theatre (with an interval and after-show discussions). Understated and melancholic, it has none of the brazenness of Ravenhill’s past work.

Under the direction of Polly Thomas, we follow Angela’s stream of consciousness from characterful scenes in early life (peeling potatoes with her mother, she says she no longer wants to be called by her birth name, Rita, and will now be known as Angela) to her am-dram days, the lustful moment of meeting Ted at a dance, and the trauma of a miscarriage that becomes more vivid in late illness (“the girl bled away”). There are snippets from the playwright’s childhood, too, placed alongside her postnatal depression, a heart attack and the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Mark Ravenhill at four years old playing with a cine camera, taken in 1971.
Mark Ravenhill at four years old playing with a cine camera, taken in 1971. Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Ravenhill

The shape of the play is built around the slippages of Angela’s dementia; a memory sends her from her present to the past in an instant and back again. Reality melts into paranoias and hallucinations so that Beatrix Potter’s fictional characters come alive and she is sure that Ted is trying to poison her. Although this form realistically and poignantly mirrors an illness that leaves its sufferers in a repeating loop of confusions, the circular thoughts and recurring phrases aren’t always dramatically gripping in themselves.

What the repetition captures so well is the disturbing shifts in Angela’s sense of self. Much of this is done through her name change: her original name, Rita, and adoptive one, Angela, act as competing identities that create confusions between past and present selves. Nurses unknowingly call her Rita and she attempts to correct them but forgets what she is called now, and ends up in a nameless no man’s land. “Is that my name?” she asks herself: “There was another name.”

The secondary story is Mark Ravenhill’s: of growing up with a love of stories and dance, and later of seeing his mother’s illness take grip. “I’m your son,” he reminds her again and again. Other people’s anxieties about his sexuality are also well dramatised in his early life. Angela emerges as his defender and hero in a triumphant moment when her sister, Julia, says: “You want to watch out he doesn’t grow up a great big poof.” Angela’s response is one of unmitigated maternal pride and rage. “My son can grow up to be anything he wants.”

Different actors play older and younger versions of several characters to mark the passing of time, although Ted is solely played by Toby Jones. Matti Houghton is young Angela while Pam Ferris is the older woman, and Jackson Laing’s young Mark is later played by Joseph Millson as a middle-aged man.

Ravenhill’s dramatisation comes amid growing creative responses to dementia in recent years, from a searing first-person account of the illness in Wendy Mitchell’s memoir Somebody I Used to Know to next week’s premiere of The Window, a binaural drama that weaves personal experience with dementia research. Angela builds on the growing bank of work to humanise an illness that is still much misunderstood.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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