Some plays, gentle reader, hold an immense and hugely significant place in a person’s heart. I can cast my mind back to December 1986, when Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was then) and I saw Woman in Mind, starring the perfectly cast Julia McKenzie and Martin Jarvis, at London’s Vaudeville Theatre for her birthday treat. We needed the time together as the previous weekend we had got engaged but the Dowager Mrs C had a pink fit at the news and spent the next X weeks/months/years taking it out on us. Sigh. The play was memorable not only for the insight into the mind of the leading character, Susan, but also my mother’s; no wonder it’s always been a significant play for us. And that is why I had been looking forward to seeing this revival all summer long!
Susan is found, dazed, possibly concussed, definitely confused, in the garden, by semi-retired Doctor Bill; he’s clearly concerned that her mind is not working as it should be, although she is perfectly confident that there’s nothing wrong at all. He goes off to get her some tea, and she is joined by her husband, brother, and daughter, all impeccably turned out for an afternoon of champers and tennis; they also reassure her nothing is wrong – all that happened was that she had stood on the garden rake and knocked herself out like some Tom and Jerry cartoon – what is she like??!! But if that’s her impossibly handsome husband, with her impossibly handsome brother and impossibly beautiful daughter, who is this grumpy old vicar with his crotchety old sister who keep barging in on her in the garden? We quickly learn that all is not well in Susan’s mind, and you can’t trust anything that you, or she, sees.
Alan Ayckbourn has written so many extraordinary plays in his lifetime that you can’t restrain him to just one masterpiece. But of all his masterpieces, this is surely one of the most masterful. His intricate plot weaving, his fooling with the audience as to what is real and what isn’t, his extraordinary understanding of a mind under pressure, of a disappointing marriage and of just how delicately to tread the balance between total hilarity and ghastly cruelty create a work of amazing tenderness and insight. It flips between pure joy and pure hell, even within the course of a sentence. Dismiss Ayckbourn as a serious writer at your peril – this is the real deal.
The special trick with this play is how Ayckbourn depicts the fact that a troubled mind can take individual facts, words, phrases, or ideas that one comes across in conversation and mix them together in an attempt to make some unified sense of them all. This enables the play to come to a riotous final scene of absolute mayhem as Susan’s subconscious pieces together nuggets of information to create a ludicrous whole that makes us laugh but disturbs her deeply; hence that perilous balance between joy and hell.
Sadly Anna Mackmin’s exquisite production has now closed, so you can’t now go and see it for yourself. If you did miss it, you really do need to kick yourself! Lez Brotherston (who else?) created a set that suggests a small patch of lawn as part of a much larger, glamorous garden; alternatively it could just be a small patch that hasn’t been nurtured and cared for as much as it deserved. Mark Henderson’s lighting creates a deep warm glow whenever Susan’s mind veers into the fantastical and returns to unadorned daylight with the harshness of reality. It’s a helpful key if you’re ever unsure as to whether what we’re seeing is real or not.
Jenna Russell was superb as Susan; the character is never off stage, as she showed us all Susan’s bewilderment, frustration, sarcasm, and the sheer hell into which she is descending; but also all the light, warmth, and kindness of the character that is being lost as her own grip on reality is declining. Nigel Lindsay was also excellent as her (real) husband Gerald, a vicar with little sense of kindness or tact, and who had given up on their relationship to spend hours researching the history of the parish.
Long-time Chichester regular Matthew Cottle was perfect as the kind but ineffectual Doctor Bill, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his own marriage was on the rocks but determined to do the best for his temporary patient; a kindness that Susan responds to as Bill starts to become part of her extra-marital fantasy. Stephanie Jacob was hilarious as the morose and vengeful Muriel, constantly imagining that her late husband Harry was sending her signs from Heaven that he still loved her. And there was excellent support from the rest of the cast including Marc Elliott as the idyllically desirable Andy – loving, handsome and a dab hand in the kitchen – and Flora Higgins as “daughter” Lucy, on her professional stage debut.
Mrs C’s eyes weren’t the only ones in the theatre that were a little moist at the end of the show. A production of a first rate play, staged with great conviction, wonderful understanding, and terrific performances. A privilege to have seen it – and it would be brilliant if the production could have a life after Chichester.
Production photos by Johan Persson