Theatre reviews: Angela | Doppler - The Story So Far

Written in memory of his mother, Mark Ravenhill’s new audio drama Angela is a clear-eyed, courageous and very moving exploration of what it means to live with dementia, writes Joyce McMillan

Pam Ferris stars in Angela

Angela *****

Doppler – The Story So Far ****

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Over the past decade, many plays have been written about the experience of dementia, and the terrible pressures it places on families, on health services, and of course on the sufferers themselves. I doubt, though, whether any of them have conjured up the progress of the disease move movingly, or with more clear-eyed courage, than Angela, the playwright Mark Ravenhill’s astonishing new drama written in memory of his mother, which premieres this weekend as the first of eight new Sound Stage audio plays commissioned by the Lyceum in Edinburgh and Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

Clockwise from bottom left: Jackson Laing, Pam Ferris, Toby Jones, Matti Houghton and Joseph Millson appear in Mark Ravenhill's audio play Angela

Angela Ravenhill died with dementia in 2019; and what Ravenhill achieves – over an exquisite 95 minutes of sonic theatre, directed by Polly Thomas of associate producers Naked Radio – is an extraordinary sense of a life that is somehow seen steadily and whole, even though its truth is partly conveyed through the fragmenting prism of Angela’s mind, in the final months of her illness. In a sense, the play is a story of lower-middle-class life on the southern edges of London during the postwar years; in an early scene, we hear 12-year-old Angela rejecting her given name, Rita, in favour of something a bit more posh, and later joining the local amateur drama group, before marrying her devoted suitor Ted.

At another level, though, this is a profound story of a woman’s physical life, and in particular of Angela’s pain over her repeated miscarriages. She grieves throughout her life, in particular, for the daughter she miscarried early in her marriage; and these are the traumas which surge to the surface of her troubled mind in her final months. Then there is her subtle and sometimes beautiful relationship with Mark himself, the much-loved gay son who somehow seems more improbable to her than that lost daughter; and whose right to be himself Angela stoutly defends, from the start.

Ravenhill’s play interweaves these threads with a tremendous, tender skill, never flinching from the horror of the dying Angela’s terrified rage as she lashes out at doctors, nurses, and her devoted husband; and every nuance of her fragmenting personality is beautifully captured in Pam Ferris’s central performance, which scales the heights of her rage and fear, and yet modulates in moments to a scene in which, briefly lucid, she is able to offer real kindness to another old lady with dementia.

There is impressive support from the rest of the 11-strong cast, including Toby Jones as Ted, Joseph Millson as Mark, and Alexandra Mathie in a range of roles; and Ravenhill’s text is also supported and enriched by superb sound from John Scott, with recordist Louis Blatherwick and composer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. As anyone knows who has cared for a parent with dementia, piecing a life back together from the fragments left by the disease is a huge work of love, often repeated every day for years. Few of us, though, have the skill or genius to transform that experience into a true work of art, glittering with a thousand facets and insights; and that is what Mark Ravenhill, with the help of an outstanding cast and production team, has achieved in the making of Angela.

Keith Fleming and Itxaso Moreno filming Doppler in Gifford Community Woodlands PIC: Janeanne Gilchrist

If many theatre companies have taken to producing audio drama during the pandemic, that was never likely to be the way forward for Edinburgh’s Grid Iron, specialists in sensual site-specific theatre that draws its promenade audience into a strong physical relationship with the work. At the time of the first lockdown, last March, Grid Iron were working on an outdoor Edinburgh Fringe production based onDoppler, a novel by Norwegian writer Erlend Loe about a man who suddenly feels that he must escape his ordinary middle class life in the city, and go to live in the forest; and throughout last spring and summer, they continued to rehearse and plan online, hoping that by late August, a live outdoor performance would be possible, under strict social distancing conditions.

In the end, even the vastly experienced Grid Iron had to admit defeat, so far as live performances were concerned. Nothing daunted, though, the cast and production team took to the woods near Gifford, and began to film a version of the story which eventually became a documentary about the attempt to make live theatre in lockdown, and about the strange synchronicity that saw them working on a story about a man who isolates himself from the world, and a time when the whole world was suddenly being asked to isolate itself, and perhaps to reflect, too, on its abruptly transformed relationship with nature and mortality.

The Grid Iron documentary will be released tomorrow night, under the title Doppler - The Story So Far; and it seems set to emerge as a small classic of reflection on these pandemic times, in terms both of their impact on theatre companies and artists, and of those deeper issues about modern western lifestyle raised by the Doppler story itself. Among the film’s many stars, it seems essential to mention Grid Iron’s director Ben Harrison and inimitable producer and dynamo Jude Doherty, along with the brilliant Doppler cast of Keith Fleming, Sean Hay, Itxaso Moreno, and sound and music man David Pollock. And of course, the lush, green and dripping woodlands of East Lothian during a rainy late summer; reminding us, by the sheer strength of their presence, that the rich natural life of our planet is our life, and that without it, we cannot survive.

Tickets for Angela, and for the whole Sound Stage season, are available from at https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/angela and https://booking.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com/events/4201ASVGBHHRTVLQBSRVKDQCKNHHDCTSJ Doppler - The Story So Far is available from 7pm on Friday via https://gridiron.org.uk/

Sean Hay filming Doppler PIC: Janeanne Gilchrist

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