The week in theatre: Angela; The Band Plays On; Hear Me Out reviews – shopping and ducking

Pitlochry Festival theatre; Crucible Sheffield; podcast; all available online
Mark Ravenhill tenderly explores his mother’s life; monologues and music from Sheffield; and actors talk about their favourite speeches

It is a long way from Shopping and F***ing. In 1996 Mark Ravenhill was celebrated and reviled for his rapid, urban scenes, one of which featured oral sex in Harvey Nicks. Now he has written a domestic, autobiographical audio drama that proclaims the importance of Beatrix Potter’s animal tales.

Angela is the first of eight new plays produced by Sound Stage, the audio-digital theatre platform set up by Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in collaboration with Naked Productions. It is a promising start. A strong cast includes Toby Jones, Pam Ferris and Joseph Millson. Polly Thomas’s direction is decisive: not bombarded with sound effects but inflected by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s music, which falls like a sigh between scenes. Wistfulness and disturbance are intertwined in episodes from the life of the dramatist’s mother.

As a child, she announced she didn’t like her given name – Rita – and wanted to be called Angela, which her own mother thought very la-di-dah. In old age, besieged by Alzheimer’s, she didn’t know who she was, forgot she had a son, and threw scalding tea at her loyal husband. As a young woman, she was in anguish at the miscarriage of a baby girl. As a mother, she brushed aside the anxiety of her sister, who thought ballet-obsessed little Mark might “grow up funny” – and patiently made him a Jemima Puddle-Duck costume.

In an improbable, lovely stroke, that dotty costume mirrors her anguish. Potter was not soft and her stories are full of shadows: her webbed heroine has difficulty hatching her eggs, has some eaten by dogs and is herself nearly killed by a fox. The costume is also a clue to the character of the budding dramatist. The toddler Mark wants an audience, and wants control of the whole story. “He’s got the tights and the beak,” sighs Angela. “Now he wants the shawl.”

The five performers in The Band Plays On.
The five performers in The Band Plays On. Photograph: Chris Saunders

The playwright Chris Bush has had some terrific theatrical plans mangled by Covid-19. Standing at the Sky’s Edge, her musical celebration of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, was due to transfer to the National in January; last year the Almeida run of Nine Lessons and Carols was cut short. Now she fights back with The Band Plays On: very Covid in form – monologues and music for solo performers – and entirely Sheffield in content. Boiler-suited and steaming, Anna-Jane Casey, Maimuna Memon, Sandra Marvin, Jocasta Almgill and Jodie Prenger put across Jarvis Cocker, Arctic Monkeys and – the knockout of the evening – The Crying Game. Directed by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, the show chronicles football’s Sheffield Rules and political disappointments, among them, Neil Kinnock “dicking about like Jarvis at the Brits”. The death of more than two hundred people in the 1864 Sheffield Flood is tellingly compared to Hillsborough. The investigation of the underlying cause of both disasters was creaky – “blame the water”. Covid imposes oddity: pleas for social cohesion are delivered by single voices. It brings one benefit: streaming takes locally-rooted stories nationwide.

Lucy Eaton laughing.
Lucy Eaton, presenter of Hear Me Out. Photograph: PR Handout

The best acting note of the week came from Adrian Lester on Lucy Eaton’s new podcast Hear Me Out. He said: “When I played Rosalind, I grew my nails long: it completely changed the way I used my hands.” Eaton (of BBC One’s Staged) has had the good idea of getting actors to talk about and deliver their favourite speech (Lester’s was from The Cost of Living). There is some guff and too much of Eaton’s – “wow”, “absolutely”, “oh yeah” – reactions. But in each interview she winkles out something surprising. Claire Skinner (who chose Pinter’s Moonlight) talked of how seeing fellow cast-members in another production felt like witnessing an infidelity; Lester described how much-maligned matinee audiences had ratcheted up his speech with their attention; Mark Bonnar applauded Tim Minchin as Hamlet. The revelatory performance came from Denise Gough as she moved from conversation to a speech from People, Places and Things. She seemed barely to alter her pace and emphasis, yet by dropping and thickening her voice she took her audience into an entirely different, precarious realm. The revelatory piece of analysis came from Eaton herself, wonderfully labelling the changes in the rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse as his “secret stage directions”.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Band Plays On ★★★
Hear Me Out ★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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