It’s over three decades ago that Sean Mathias’ A Prayer for Wings won a Fringe First award; that production was directed by Joan Plowright, but in the years that followed Mathias himself built up a formidable reputation as a theatre and film director, and so it seems especially fitting that he should be directing this revival of the play which launched his career. Having premiered this summer in Swansea as part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebrations, it now comes to London and the King’s Head Theatre with an all-Welsh cast.
In rural Wales, Rita Kelly and her Mam live an almost Groundhog Day kind of existence. Mrs. Kelly has multiple sclerosis and is confined to either her bed or wheelchair, twenty-year old Rita is her sole carer and only surviving member of the family. The mornings begin with Mam calling for Rita to get her out of bed, make tea and toast, and finally get her on to the ‘lav’. Neither are living the life they want to be living, and both dream for things to be different, often being selfish about it in their own ways.
While Mam is confined, Rita does have one escape, her daily trips to the shops and launderette allow her the chance to meet boys, she charges them 50p for a feel and even brings a couple back to the house, where the rate increases to five pounds. Luke Rhodri gives us three of these young men, and succeeds in making each of them their own character, despite the briefness of their appearances. Mam is probably unaware that her daughter is technically still a virgin, and instead is tortured by the thought of her offspring with “those filthy boys.”
Rita’s encounters with the opposite sex are symbolic though of her dreams, the cash comes in handy because they have only the Giro to live on, but in reality Rita fantasises about meeting the perfect man, who will sweep her off her feet and give her the life she so desperately desires, if only she weren’t being held back by her crippled mother.
For much of the time, Rita and Mam are speaking not to each other, but to the audience in monologue form. It is here that we discover their true thoughts and feelings, the pain and agony the disease has caused for both them, and the frustrations that come with being so dependent on each other. Living in a disused church means that both characters can explore the role of God, and often the Devil, in their own lives, and the disappointment that comes when prayers are not answered.
Llinos Daniel gives an exceptional performance as Mam, often haranguing her daughter to the point we share Rita’s desire to take a pillow to her as she sleeps, but in those reflective moments Daniel gives us snippets of the tragedy of a life wasted, and it is beyond compelling. Alis Wyn Davies is phenomenally good as Rita, we see someone who is utterly defeated, an outcast in life with no realistic chance of escape, but who can still dream and hope. Alis Wyn Davies combines resentment and empathy in a way which is truly heartbreaking.
Sean Mathias as director, assisted by up and coming talent Charlie Norburn, has created a sense of tension in A Prayer for Wings which is palpable. For all the repetition of their lives, we are never quite sure what will happen next for Rita and Mam, their relationship is as delicate as a china bowl, ready to be smashed against the wall at any moment. Adam Cork’s sound design, brings Wales to Islington, but it is the dreamlike melodies which play between scenes that give this play a heavenly feel.
As strikingly relevant today as when it was written, A Prayer for Wings highlights not just the plight of young carers, but of young people across the country who feel trapped and stifled in their own lives. The story is told with such honesty, it is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of theatre.