Thursday, 29 September 2022

REVIEW: Woman in Mind at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has written and produced more than eighty full-length plays since his first in the late fifties and established himself as one of Britain’s most prolific and successful comedy writers. In the sixties and seventies, he had a string of hugely successful plays based largely around middle-class families in crisis but often with a brilliant theatrical trick that made them stand out from the rest. In 1985 he wrote Woman in Mind which has a very different darker feel but is still firmly rooted in the eighties culture. When do you remember your local Doctor last visiting you at home three times in a 48-hour period! Or did he?

It is written entirely as if seen through the eyes of Susan, a woman in a loveless marriage with an errant son who avoids contact with his parents. She has developed an alternative reality with an imagined family. Following an accident, with a rake in her garden, we see her increasingly confusing merger of these two realities. The characters she imagines as her mental state declines are like a collection of stereotypical stock characters from a seventies Ray Cooney farce, the bumbling vicar, the cheery old Doctor, the wayward young man, the incompetent housekeeper, the upper-class fool, and the attractive blonde bride. Yet here the tone is darker, the comic moments mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny and the interplay between the two alternative worlds too often misses the opportunity for her spoken out loud lines to be misheard by the other alternative world.

It is beautifully set (Designer Lez Brotherton) making the most of the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage to create a raised garden area on the edge of rolling countryside and extended lawns of Susan’s alternative world (where we are sat). Backed by a magnificent sky video projection from Simon Baker hints at which world we are in and dramatically foretells the coming storm at sunset when the two worlds collide. The lush grass effect that covers the stage does not even hint at the grass being greener in the alternative world as it might have done!

In this picturesque setting, Jenna Russell is found as Susan and remains throughout the whole play, reinforcing the fact that everything we see is in her eyes and mind. As a result, her delivery is a little one-note, and we never really hear or see how others might be viewing her irrational behaviour and explanations. Nevertheless, it is a wonderfully sustained performance which becomes more alarming and poignant as she gets drenched in the middle of the night fantasising about how her two worlds might come together. It is never quite clear whether her confusion is the direct result of being hit on the head by a rake or a complete mental breakdown.

There is good support for her from the cast, especially Matthew Cottle as Bill, who first encounters her and starts to reveal that all is not well in her mind. He is very good at pretending to engage with her imagined child in what is perhaps the best scene of the play, an act of good intentions that perhaps tips her over the edge. Nigel Lindsay is her parish vicar's husband Gerald more obsessed with writing a book on the history of his parish than seeing or caring about his wife’s mental state but providing a strong contrast to her adoring husband in the alternative world of Andy played by Marc Elliott. It is obvious why she would be attracted to his attention and flattery compared to Gerald.

In the real world, her son Rick played by Will Attenborough is distant and detached from the family unit (understandably given his parent's behaviour) and is contrasted with her attractive imagined daughter Lucy (Flora Higgins) who adores her mother. Orlando James is Susan’s imagined brother Tony, an upper-class toff who plays tennis and goes shooting as a counter position to her real-world sister-in-law Muriel (Stephanie Jacob) the “Mrs Overall” style housekeeper who confuses all the ingredients in her cooking for some rather lame laughs. Neither of these family members are sympathetic and seems included just for cheap laughs.

Director Anne Mackmin keeps the pace flowing so we don’t get a chance to reflect on the whole implausibility of the situation but somehow the contrast between the comedic moments and the high drama are not strong enough to surprise or shock us and the sequence when the bride becomes a horse in a race is simply bizarre. There is no doubt that in the thirty-plus years since this was written mental health concerns have become much more widespread and more is discussed about the sense of lose of identity that women have felt which make this topic more relevant today but somehow Woman in mind comes across as a period piece from the eighties and lacks the brilliant theatrical structure of Ayckbourn’s most successful plays or the truly great moments of comic farce. It is a solid and enjoyable production with a good cast and fine set but given the writer's pedigree, I expected more.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row J | Price of Ticket: £44.50
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