Mark Ravenhill has taken us to some dark places over the years but none more so than with this unflinching account of his beloved mother Angela’s final dementia journey.
But this debut audio collaboration between the Royal Lyceum Theatre and Pitlochry Festival Theatre is as much about class, thwarted ambition and shared memories as it is about a condition that affects nearly a million people across the UK.
From the moment the young Angela – subtly played by Matti Houghton – changes her name from the too ‘common’ Rita to Angela you sense this is an intelligent working class woman with artistic ambitions. Her short am dram career is cut short by marriage to engineer Ted, and any ambition to take it further disappears. A pertinent point when the acting profession is increasingly posh and closed to future Angelas.
Instead she becomes a housewife who suffers a miscarriage and undiagnosed postnatal depression that impacts on an often strained relationship with her pushy, demanding and precocious child, which Ravenhill is honest about. But her love for this strange little boy is shown when his aunt suggests that Angela needs to be careful ‘he doesn’t grow up to be a great big poof’. Angela instantly turns into mother wolf protecting her cub snarling ‘and what if he is?’ Jackson Laing is young Mark obsessed with being Jemima Puddleduck, which his mother is happy to indulge, but along with Ted who just yearns for a ‘normal’ life they draw the line at ballet lessons.
Ravenhill cleverly makes the play episodic, often repetitive and woozy shifting back and forth through Angela’s life mimicking her later dementia, but the listener never loses their way thanks to clear and crisp direction from Polly Thomas, aided by Alexandria Faye Braithwaite’s haunting score.
Playing anyone living with dementia is always tricky, but the hugely experienced Pam Ferris is absolutely sensational as older Angela. She deftly switches from lucid Angela to confusion, aggression, paranoia as she thinks gentle Ted is trying to kill her and finally genuine fear as she struggles to know what is real.
The moment a proud woman who can’t recognise her own son wails ‘I don’t want to be mad’ is just gut wrenching. In lesser hands this would have been trite, or sentimental, but Ferris manages to retain Angela’s dignity by revealing her inner voice, and you won’t hear a better performance all year.
Toby Jones is the best British actor of his generation bringing all his understated power to a young Ted’s quiet decency as he introduces his adored son to literature through bedtime readings of Wind In The Willows. Even more powerful is his bewildered older Ted who just can’t understand – or accept – what is happening to his life partner.
In a neat plot twist Joseph Millson’s patient older Mark finally takes up ballet in middle age as his mother repeatedly says to him ‘I don’t know anyone called Mark’. When he combs his mum’s hair so Angela can look her best it is unbearably poignant with so much unsaid but demonstrated through this intimate act.
Ravenhill has often been unfairly stereotyped as a shock merchant, but this brutally honest account of watching someone you love slowly that sense of self which makes us human is as grim yet vital as anything he has ever written.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 27th March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★