Theatre in Wales

Plays and dance productions in Wales since 1982...

A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
First presented in 2001 by Torch Theatre
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   There are 6 reviews of Torch Theatre's A Prayer for Wings in our database:
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Aberystwyth Arts Centre
In Torch Theatre's revival of Sean Matthias' A Prayer for Wings, which was presented at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 28th February, wheelchair-bound Mam asks: "I could fall. I could cry for help. Who'd listen? Who'd hear?" She is provoked to ask this because her 20-year old daughter and caretaker, Rita, doesn't always come downstairs immediately when Mam needs to get out of bed in the morning, and every morning of the last three days Rita has come downstairs later and later. But, living in a derelict church, Mam may be asking this question of God. She could be asking it of the terrace where she lives, or the town, where there is a 28% unemployment rate and her daughter has some prostitution clients but no friends. In the end it doesn't matter to whom Mam addresses her questions, or her prayers. She never hears any answers.

Many of the factors which have landed Mam and Rita in this incapacitating, almost unlivable situation come from outside the church-home which fills the Arts Centre's stage from the corners of the floor to the top of the proscenium, but those factors are made obvious if not necessarily visible. The social stigmatisation of single mothers like Mam, the absence of reasonably accessible health care in some places away from the large cities, unemployment, and the church and society's attitudes towards gender roles, families, and sex constitute a large part of the problem; Matthias demonstrates this without sounding too didactic.

The playwright received a lot of assistance in conveying these observations by set designer James Humphreys. The church windows are filled in not with glass, but with sections of gilded chain-link fence, suggesting that the church is built inside a prison or a chicken coop. In the "kitchen," dishes are piled up for washing in the baptismal font. The white-and-pink cylindrical structure that towers one story above the floor and serves as Rita's bedroom suggests a nightmarishly large wedding cake. Wedged between a pillar and a pile of clutter next to Mam's bed is a jigsaw-puzzle box labeled "100 Pieces": Humphreys dares Matthias' characters to put the fragments of their lives back together again.

A Play for Wings offers two adept actresses a pair of good lead roles. In light of the recent debate over the three-man play Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco, it's good to see a play told from the point of view of two women. Having said that, I realise that these women's roles were written by a male playwright. There are a lot of playwrights (Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Wendy Wasserstein come to my mind) who appear terrified of or unable to write convincing, multi-dimensional characters of the opposite gender. I would like to see more new plays by women in the future, but no playwright should feel under pressure to write protagonists of her or his own gender. After all, half the fun of dramatic writing is mentally "taking a walk," to quote the American novelist Harper Lee, "in someone else's shoes." I'm glad Matthias decided to attempt that.

As Rita, Catrin Rhys was very convincing. She is Clov to Mam's Hamm. She is practically Mam's slave, except she has the ability to leave-only she won't, she can't. If she were to leave, Mam would die, and although she fantasises about killing her, Desdemona-style with a pillow, Rita has a little ethics and love, even if neither she nor Mam will say so out loud. Rhys plays out that struggle fitfully, agonisingly, and naturally. She flings herself awake each morning of each nightmarish day the play ploughs through with a strange combination of exhaustion and firecracker energy.

In the opinion of more than one Aberystwyth spectator, Mam, as played by Helen Griffin (who played the beleaguered mother-in-law in Steel Wasp's "The Suicide") steals sympathy from her daughter. Griffin's Mam has strong desires, strong objectives, and isn't afraid-at least in soliloquy-to express them. This is particularly evident in the scene in which one of the boys follows Rita up the ladder to her room as Mam spins her wheels at the bottom and rages. She knows she won't propel herself up the ladder in her chair, but one can tell she is trying to.

However, Mathias' script does drag a bit, and if the first half of the first act could be cut down substantially it would help the play as a whole. In the first act, a pattern is established: in the second, it is torn apart, so it makes sense that the second act seems to move in ways the first does not. It's understandably difficult for a playwright to show a tedious, unchanging experience, and to subject the audience to that tedium and repetition without making the play itself slow down to near-stagnation. There's a balance to be struck here, but some editing may be necessary to find it.

In their one conversation about Rita's father, Mam tells her daughter that the man's name was Pat Kelly, he was Irish, he was undependable, and he liked "whisky and blondes, in that order." Perhaps this is demonstrating Mam's own limited and limiting view of this person; but one feels cheated, knowing nothing about him than that he conforms to an overused stereotype of his nationality. I don't think it's a bad thing to have characters think in stereotypes-sadly that's a reflection of the way many real people think-but if this is the intention, the issue shouldn't simply be abandoned after one short exchange.

Matthias discusses his character's physical characteristics when he perhaps shouldn't. It makes no sense for Mam to claim that Kelly preferred "a blonde" to her when Griffin herself has light-coloured hair. Rita continually describes herself as "short, fat, and plain" but Rhys is none of these. Lastly, I have to say I don't like the title. The monologue it refers to simply echoes ideas that have already been expressed, laboriously. The title sounds like the title of a t.v. movie. It seems generic and it sounds pompous.

In a review of "A Prayer for Wings" previously published at this website, David Adams wrote:
"The play, and this production, make us not only depressed (despite the ambiguous ending) but uncomfortable. We need clear through-lines, some sort of guidance on whose side we should be on, some sort of answer, a light at the end of the tunnel, and we don't get any of this in a postmodernish lack of certainty. The sex scenes, where Rita dispassionately masturbates her adolescent clients and so unwittingly ensures that with their premature ejaculation she never does lose her virginity are distressing and not just because of the sexual acts."
I don't know if we really do need "clear through-lines" or to be told "whose side we should be on." We need plays that make the spectators feel "uncomfortable." We need bleak and depressing and distressing events in the theatre because regrettably real life is sometimes bleak, depressing, and distressing, without a clearly focused light at the end of the tunnel. Go see this play. Despite the few details that need ironing out, it's designed, built, and acted painfully well.

Rebecca Nesvett
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Set in Swansea, this emotional portrayal of a difficult existence brought feelings of sympathy whilst still succeeding in demonstrating considerable wit. With a script that has the potential to be comical yet heart-rendering, the director Peter Doran has really come to grips with the narrative and conveyed this story to the audience effectively. The characters seem to be exposed and fragile, it almost feels as though we, the audience are prying into rather than simply observing their very personal lives. And although both characters are acrimonious and self-centred at times, their love for each other is always apparent which is what makes it so touching.

The making of the production most definitely lies with the performers themselves. Helen Griffin played the fault finding crippled mother and although Rita's (Catrin Rhys) pessimism was totally understandable, Griffin really helped us to understand how she must have been feeling considering she was barely forty and had led an active life before the disease had taken hold. On the other hand, the skillful portrayal of Rita meant that even when she expressed the desire to kill her mother, we understood that this wasn't any kind if life for a teenage girl. We forgave her just as her mother forgave her for continually returning to the boys to make money for sexual favours.

The play is set in a disused church and designer, James Humphrey had captured this realistically. The set also assisted in demonstrating the poverty in which they were living, with its column and fonts being used as a washing-up basin. Rita's bedroom was on a raised platform so we could see and hear what was coming from both rooms though the characters were oblivious. This worked very well in certain scenes as the conflicting opinions from both characters made it very difficult to side with one in particular. It also allowed us to see what Rita was doing with the different boys that she brought back and because we are aware that Mam could not see any of this only made us feel for her more.

The theme of entrapment was emphasised with each character's situation. Her illness, her lack of capital and her narrow-minded opinions concerning sexual relations with men trapped the mother. Rita was unable to lead a 'normal' life due to her mother's illness, but her self-confidence, or lack of it also trapped her. The ending was predictable and nauseatingly sentimental but the play needed the emotional climax and the audience needed some kind of resolution to an otherwise painfully poignant story.
Victoria Cooper
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Clwyd Theatr Cymru
The set cleverly yet concisely hints at the whole ethos of the play. Entering the theatre gave the immediate impression of entering a musty, decaying church; the faint smell of stale incense; the still imposing church window; the simple but effectively used straw lighting; the carefully chosen ecclesiastical music, which permeates the whole play; the audience almost the congregation. Amongst the clutter and mess of second-hand furniture, an ancient dresser with carefully arranged china takes pride of place - a hint of Mam's pride and dignity before her illness; the same pride that caused them to move from Neath and become almost reclusive, 40 year-old Mam not wishing to be known or seen as a "cripple" (she has M.S.). Mam's old-fashioned notion of being able to cope without outside help is really what turns the church, which is Mam's sanctuary, into Rita's prison.

So, they live in a dilapidated, redundant church in Swansea, its former grandeur brutalised by the unsympathetic addition of electricity meters and domestic clutter; where the old hymn board doubles as a notice board, and the font has become the kitchen sink. Even the solitary houseplant is dead - longing for life, just like Mam and Rita.
Rita enjoys telling us how her God-fearing Mam never went to church when she was living in Neath and well enough to do so. Yet true to the old-fashioned order of Welsh puritanism, Mam (whom we learn became pregnant at 20, outside wedlock) wants Rita (also 20) to be respectable, believes that sexual pleasure is wrong and detests filth - doubly ironic, given the surroundings in which she lives, and her bed-time reading - a tatty copy of "Ideal Home" magazine. Rebellious Rita consequently delights in using the word "filthy", and occasionally resorts to a deliberately provocative use of foul language.

Both Helen Griffin (Mam) and Catrin Rhys (Rita) performed with great sensitivity, conviction, emotion and intimacy, engaging closely with the audience in their "sing-song" Swansea accents - See! Neither was afraid to use eye contact to evoke a sense of sympathy within the audience. At times it felt as if I was best friend to each in turn as they confided their innermost thoughts, worries and fantasies. At other times I almost felt like a member of the jury, listening intently as each woman presented her own case. This was quite an uncomfortable feeling, as though a decision between them would have to be made.

Helen Griffin gives an outstanding performance as Mam. Her pain, both physical and mental, is very evident. Her eye contact with Rita is a cri-de-coeur - she longs for Rita to be compassionate and a "good girl". Conversely, Rita makes very little direct eye contact with her Mam - she longs to break free. In her desperation she constantly tells us "I'll go with anyone", such is her desire to be needed and loved; but by her ideal man, not by her crippled Mam. Catrin Rhys depicts Rita's torment admirably (You call THIS life?).

Ben McKay's brief appearances as the various boys in Rita's life are convincing in their naivety - we the audience almost feel like " peeping Toms " as Jim, when he drops his pants, turns shyly to the audience to see if anyone is looking!

Sean Mathias' play reminds me on the one hand of Pinter - with its strained relationships, awkward silences and menace. (Will Rita go as far as to kill her Mam? She is very sorely tempted at times.) At other moments I hear echoes of Becket's "Waiting for Godot". Mam and Rita go through the same mundane routine every day - waiting for life - a prayer for wings. The play ends with release for both; Mam dies alone, crying for her Rita, and moves on to eternal life. Rita comes home, discovers that she has found her ideal man, and then that her Mam is dead in bed. Rita's weeping "Mummy" exclamation at this realisation comes too late for her Mam to hear. Mam's prediction that Rita would find her ideal man when she is dead and gone proves to be accurate.

A wonderful production - don't miss the opportunity to see it.
Elaine Atack
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Torch Theatre, Milford Haven
Welsh dramatist Sean Mathias' piece takes a simple theme - the bonds and bindings of family duty - and turns it into a bleak but riveting morality tale at the Torch Theatre.

The cast of three (Helen Griffin, Catrin Rhys and Ben McKay) contribute fine acting to the timeless tragedy of the love/hate relationship between carer and the cared-for, given an eighties setting by Mathias.

Ostracised by their neighbours, a wheelchair-bound mother and her young daughter live in impoverished isolation in a disused Swansea church.

The simple but claustrophobic set by James Humphrey is dominated by the church window, and religious metaphors abound.

As the God-fearing , working-class, stereotypical Welsh mam disabled by multiple sclerosis, Griffin is excellent. Physically limited by the character's disability, her facial expression speaks volumes.

As played by Rhys, the daughter Rita is no angel. Rita's frustration is barely contained as she encircles her mother's neck with her arms. Is it an affectionate caress or a murderous, Judas-like embrace?

Rhys' voice cracks with emotion, as she fantasises about getting 'a life'.

By exploiting the device of allowing the characters to confide in the audience, director Peter Doran evokes sympathy for mother and daughter.

In two raw scenes we see plain and dumpy Rita relieving the tedium of her existence by satisfying the sexual needs of the layabout local lads (all played to great effect by McKay).

The lilting Swansea dialect sits easily with the actors, and the west Wales audience enjoyed Mathias' witty Welsh in-jokes.
Vivien Stoddart (The Stage)
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Torch Theatre, Milford Haven
Sean Matthias, perhaps best known as a director and for his relationship with Ian McKellen, wrote A Prayer for Wings in the 1980s, when it was hailed as the work of a major new Welsh playwriting talent. It won plaudits and prizes at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1985. It moved to the Bush and won another award. In what rare writing on modern Welsh theatre there is, it is mentioned; Theatr Clwyd revived it in 1990 and thus gave it some sort of status.

The question is: can A Prayer for Wings be seen as a seminal, or even significant contribution to contemporary Welsh drama ? Peter Doran’s production for his Torch Theatre Company is very good and at least exposes the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the play. And it is certainly problematic.

The setting is a converted church in a terraced street in Swansea. The characters are a middle-aged woman crippled with multiple sclerosis (Helen Griffin) and her plain teenage daughter Rita (Catrin Rhys). The play covers what is presumably a few weeks and culminates, inevitably, in the mother’s death - but also in the daughter’s discovery of hope in the form of a young lad who for once does not simply want to get into her knickers.

It is on the surface a deeply grim piece of social realism. The daily routine is a monotonous one of meals, the laundrette, nursing and signing on. The mother is scarred from a deserting husband in a brief marriage that has left her mistrustful of all men and disapproving of sex; her pleasures come from treats like fish and chips, baked beans and chocolate bars. The daughter, a virgin, feels trapped into caring for her mother, dreams of idyllic love and finds solace with the pimply youths who feel her up on the local rec or pay her a fiver for intercourse in her room that is never achieved.

Matthias allows us to sympathise with both characters but, crucially, never allows us to take sides: there is no moral certitude here, as we feel both for a bitter woman denied love and facing death with some fortitude and bravery and for her abject daughter who half-wishes her dependent mother dead but whose frustration and self-deprecation is all too understandable. They both want to escape, the mother trapped by her experiences and her debilitating condition, the daughter by the mother’s dependence and by her own lack of self-esteem. Men are either filthy exploiters or romantic heroes. Desire for the one is tea and toast and treats, for the other storybook love and marriage.

The play, and this production, make us not only depressed (despite the ambiguous ending) but uncomfortable. We need clear through-lines, some sort of guidance on whose side we should be on, some sort of answer, a light at the end of the tunnel, and we don’t get any of this in a postmodernish lack of certainty. The sex scenes, where Rita dispassionately masturbates her adolescent clients and so unwittingly ensures that with their premature ejaculation she never does lose her virginity are distressing and not just because of the sexual acts.

So what makes it Welsh ? It could, after all, be set anywhere and in many ways is in the spirit of those mid-twentieth century novels and plays usually set in Northern towns, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

What makes it a Welsh play is first that it is by a Welsh writer and set in a Welsh location. Matthias comes from Swansea - although the posh end, Sketty, and probably never knew first-hand the hardships of living on the social in a terrace - and says that it is important for him that the play is produced in Wales. He also set a later play, Swansea Boys (1993), in his home town

But more importantly A Prayer for Wings is in some ways a state-of-the-nation play in the tradition of Change, The Keep and Ed Thomas’s early plays. The converted chapel stands for Wales, with its puritan morals now redundant. There is the familiar iconic Mam. Not only Mam as Wales but as a nation confused and schizophrenic - Doran makes her bedtime reading a prayerbook and Ideal Home magazine as she suffers the claustrophobia of religion. The despair and the hope of a better future are embodied in Rita, who dreams of escaping to America. The future can only come with the death of the mother and even then it seems to be unrealistically optimistic. And so on. Let’s not be too reductionist - this is no simple-minded piece of symbolism, but the play’s claims to be anything more than an engaging but depressing melodrama rely on these deeper levels.

There are, unfortunately, other levels that create problems, meanings not intended by the author but exposed (though I feel not exposed enough) in the Torch production. Essentially they revolve around what can be seen as a patrician perspective: a Welsh-émigré middle-class man’s take on Welsh working-class women. I detected a patronising, stereotyping, misogynist tone infecting the apparent compassion. And that inevitably questions the play’s integrity and value in terms of social realism, political argument and historical status.

I wanted the Torch production, in so many ways intelligent and detailed and affecting, to address these problems, to interrogate this play more rigorously, to question the assumptions and presumptions of the author, to reassess its status. I suspect it may well do so (I saw it on the opening night) as it settles in on its tour of Wales. As it is, the production flatters the play and makes it a better piece of theatre than it deserves.

David Adams
A Prayer for Wings by Sean Mathias
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Torch Theatre, Milford Haven
THERE are, you must be warned, not many laughs in Sean Matthias’s bleak study of hopelessness and depression, as a mother crippled with multiple sclerosis and her plain, dumpy daughter tell us about their wretched lives down Swansea way.
But if you can cope with the anguish and discomfort, then Peter Doran’s excellent production at the Torch (and touring Wales soon) is a gripping piece of theatre.

Helen Griffin and Catrin Rhys are impressive as the mother who hates men and the daughter who so desperately wants to love them.

This is hardly the stuff of comedy. Both women want to escape on the wings of desire. Mam looks to God and chocolate bars, Rita to the pimply lads on the rec. She dreams of a real gentleman who won’t just want to interfere with her. Each earns our sympathy and then our disapproval.

The Torch production in a way offers more than the play deserves. As a piece of social realism or allegory, A Prayer For Wings may be clever, affecting, challenging and sensitive but it also carries with it hints of misogyny, of a patronising elitism, a play about Welsh working-class women by an ex-Welsh privileged male.

Doran’s delicate and perceptive direction and accomplished cast allow us to get hints of this darker side to a work that has become almost a modern Welsh classic.

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