Playwright Mark Ravenhill explores his mother's dementia in new play
Playwright Mark Ravenhill – who grew up in Haywards Heath – offers a tale very close to home with his new production: the story of his 84-year-old mother Angela suffering with dementia as she looks back across her life.
Angela will premiere on the new audio digital theatre platform Sound Stage from March 26-28 – a piece which moves between Angela in her old age, her memories and mind failing her, and Angela in her youth, growing up, moving away from her roots as the world of drama welcomed her. The play depicts her struggle with depression and the challenges of her own aspirations and becoming a mother, poignantly set against Mark’s experience of beginning to learn ballet, his lifelong passion, in his early 50s.
In the play, Mark’s father Ted will be played by the award-winning theatre and screen actor Toby Jones and his wife Angela will be played by Pam Ferris.
“My mother died in 2019,” Mark says, “and I started thinking about writing something, and with the lockdown I thought audio drama would be a good way to do it. I just thought radio is a really good way to get inside someone’s head because you listen to radio in a really intimate way, and technically the actors can get so close to you. But it is also a very fluid medium… a different medium. You can travel backwards and forwards, even quicker than you can do in film. I don’t think it is a medium which makes greater demands on the listener necessarily. I think listening to the radio can be really quite relaxing and quite soothing. It draws you in.
“My parents moved to Haywards Heath a few months before I was born. They moved to Haywards Heath in 1966, and there was a little cottage hospital that I was born in. My father is still in the same house, and it was just a gorgeous place to grow up in. It was a little cul de sac, and just growing up in the 1970s you had so much freedom. It was great.”
As for what his mother would think of the play: “I suspect she would just be a little bit embarrassed and wouldn’t want the attention. But she would be really pleased with the cast. She just loved actors and actresses, and she loved everything that Pam Ferris did. When I was talking to Pam, I was telling her that we went to see her when she was touring in Roots which came to the University of Sussex in the early 1980s.”
In the play, Angela looks back on her life: “It is framed by the Alzheimer’s, but it is really about growing up in a small village outside Luton. There were lots of ways that culture interacted in her life when she was young. She was in the amateur players. She loved reading. She was always very creative. And when I started to get interested in it all, she would always help me. It is about someone from a working-class background for whom culture was really important.
“The illness started to come on. The classic pattern is that you have five to seven years after diagnosis. She was diagnosed about six years before she died, and for a long time we were just thinking that she was getting quite forgetful… and then it started becoming a problem for her. Finally she was given a diagnosis. Fortunately she was in a very safe environment. My brother was at home with her and with my dad, and she really just accepted that she couldn’t remember things at first and would ask things like ‘When did I get married?’ She had a few weeks when she got very paranoid and frightened. Quite a lot of the time she was away with the fairies, but mostly she was absolutely happy. It can all depend so much on the environment and the people around you.”
Angela is the first play in the opening season of Sound Stage, a new online audio theatre venture. For tickets and information on the Sound Stage opening season, visit www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com and www.lyceum.org.uk.