Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre. Oaklands Way, Chichester PO19 6AP
Credits: Alan Ayckbourn
Woman in Mind 4 stars
We tend to associate Alan Ayckbourn with comedy but, as every reader of Sardines knows, his work is much more nuanced than that. Woman in Mind, which he wrote in 1985, as a young playwright, is actually a searing tragedy whose many comic moments only highlight the plight of the central character.
Susan (Jenna Russell) is a middle class, middle-aged vicar’s wife losing her mind. Perhaps it’s the result of a knock on the head. Or it may be a severe menopause or early onset Alzheimer’s. The reason doesn’t matter much. What we’re watching is a mind being taken over by dementia.
Her delusions take the form of re-enactions of the life she, at some level, wishes she’d had: a grand country home, maybe even an estate, a loving daughter (Flora Higgins) a dishy very caring husband (Marc Elliott), a dashing younger brother (Orlando James) and a glittering career in her own right.
What she actually has – and Mark Henderson’s lighting and Simon Barker’s video design complete with flying birds make us acutely aware of the difference – is an overbearing, boorish, boring, bossy sexless husband (Nigel Lindsay in excellent form) and a small garden. Their son Rick (Will Attenborough) has attached himself to a silent sect in Hemel Hempstead but comes home and upsets his mother still further during the course of the play.
Russell finds a lot of eloquent silence as Susan gazing into the distance, clearly desperately unhappy and barking cynical remarks at those around her – between her delusional episodes. It’s a challenging but very meaty role and Russell is good at switching mood as suddenly she sees her other life or aspects of it. Her final scenes when, soaked to the skin by rain, she falls apart completely – and, in a bizarre muddled-mind sequence – conjures up entwined, distorted versions of both her lives are almost unbearably moving. Anyone who has lived with loss of mind at close quarters, as I have, will identify with the horror of watching someone disappear into a world of their own while onlookers, rooted in their own version of reality, have no idea what is going on.
Matthew Cottle turns in a fine performance as Bill, the kindly but slightly dotty local doctor who tries to help Susan but is out of his depth. And there’s lovely work from Stephanie Jacob as the lumpy sister-in-law galumphing round the stage and producing inedible food and undrinkable beverages.
Yes, this is a production which will make you laugh. A lot. It is also likely to make you cry.