Guest Blog: Mark Ravenhill On Turning Life Into Art With 'Angela'

Mark Ravenhill has written such era-defining plays as Shopping and F***ing, Mother Clap's Molly House, and The Cane, and has now turned the pandemic to advantage to pen Angela, his most autobiographical play to date. Telling of his late mum, who died in 2019 age 84, the audioplay stars Pam Ferris in the title role alongside Toby Jones as the author's dad, Ted, and Joseph Millson as Mark himself. The playwright sets this especially personal piece of writing in context below.

I first started to think about the play that became Angela in October 2019. For the previous two months I'd been in rehearsal for the RSC's new musical The Boy In The Dress, for which I had written the book. For eight weeks, I'd worked in a space packed with performers, creatives, stage management and chaperones for our child performers. Now, as the forty strong team moved on to Stratford for the start of technical rehearsals, I found myself alone in the huge, empty rehearsal room.

Being the book writer for a musical is a humbling experience. The playwright is the central voice in the first production of a new play. But for a new musical, you're far more of a technician, serving the story of the original source material, nipping, and tucking the script as rehearsals progress so that the dialogue best supports the stars of the show: dance, spectacle, and song.

With that behind me, I felt the need to reassert my individual voice as a playwright, to write something uniquely my own. What was the most personal story I could tell and what was the most personal form of theatre in which I could tell it?

Six months before, my mum had died after living for the previous five years with steadily progressing Alzheimer's. A keen member of a local amateur theatre group in her youth, she impressed upon me how much of my love of theatre I had inherited from her. Far from being the pushy stage mum, she in fact hadn't told me about her amateur theatre experience as I grew up, whereas I had decided that I'd wanted to spend my life making theatre before I'd left primary school. It was only in old age that she began to talk more about her years with the Kimpton Village Players.

Ted Ravenhill (left) and Toby Jones, the actor playing him
Photo c. Louis Blatherwick

When the time came to write the eulogy for her funeral, I discovered the Players' online archive. Here were photos of mum in productions, programmes in which she is listed amongst the cast, reviews from local newspapers of her performances. For one production she'd even persuaded her boyfriend (later her husband and my father, Ted) to play opposite her, an experience he didn't much enjoy and which he never repeated.

I decided that I would write a stage monologue for myself to perform, playing both myself but also my late mum, drawing on her life experience from her youthful love of theatre up to the last few years of Alzheimer's. The RSC's dramaturg, Pippa Hill, agreed to meet with me for a few hours every day for a week and every morning I would wake up early, write a few more pages and rush in to act them out for Pippa, followed by extensive discussion and coffee drinking. We began to think that this was something that I could perform at the next year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival and resolved that we would have a venue in place by Easter 2020.

Then came the pandemic. It quickly became apparent that there would be no chance of me performing a stage monologue in 2020 and that our planned West End transfer of The Boy In The Dress was on hold. In my head I game-played the worst possible scenario: what if took five years to find a vaccine and for all that time the theatres - from which I'd made my living for the last twenty-five years - were closed? I would want to carry on writing drama. What other medium could I use?

I decided that audio drama would be the first thing to return and realised that mum's story would work well. The audio play can take the listener right inside a character's head so that we hear their innermost thoughts and move swiftly backwards and forwards in time and space. Using the thirty minutes worth of monologue material I already had, I began to shape a ninety-minute audio play for multiple actors.

I'd finished the play by June, filling the long days of lockdown with my writing. An offer quickly came through to be part of the Edinburgh Lyceum/Pitlochry Theatre Sound Stage project and by February this year we were recording the play with the cast each in their own homes, delivering their performances "down the line", as it were.

I'm vaccinated now and eager to get back in to a theatre as soon as possible. But until that happy day comes, I'm really excited to share Angela with a listening audience.

The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company and Pitlochry Festival Theatre in association with Naked Productions and BBC Radio 3 present Angela on Sound Stage from 26-28 March

Photo credit: Mark Ravenhill