Sir Alan Ayckbourn has, apparently, wanted for some years to revive his 1986 play, Woman in Mind, and cast Janie Dee in the lead. The current Scarborough production proves him right on both counts. The play is still current, disturbing, challenging and very funny, and Dee triumphs with a superlative performance.
Like much of Ayckbourn’s work, Woman in Mind operates on shifting sand: as soon as the audience thinks it understands the situation, the ground moves. Susan, a well-educated, smartly-dressed middle-class woman, wakes from unconsciousness in her garden, with a doctor in attendance. Their conversation is contradictory, at cross purposes. When he leaves, her “husband” Andy and an ideal family leap gaily on stage, celebrating her perfect life in perfect surroundings.
Soon, however, it becomes apparent that her actual family consists of a prosy, if well-intentioned, middle-aged vicar, Gerald, his widowed sister Muriel and a son, Rick, who has joined a cult in Hemel Hempstead that enjoins neglect of parents on its members. So clearly Susan’s subconscious has invented an ideal imaginary family! Not so simple, of course, as events in the hallucinatory and real worlds twist and collide and Susan sinks into mental illness.
Janie Dee’s performance is a tour de force of naturalism: never off stage, with events seen through her eyes, she persuades us that she is always in the right, whether smugly basking in adoration or destroying Muriel’s remnants of self-confidence with witty verbal shafts or silently making the in-the-round audience complicit in the depth of her boredom and contempt. As she unravels and desperately seeks identity and control, there are no histrionics: all is still alarmingly, uncannily natural.
Paul Kemp and John Branwell are both totally sympathetic as two rumpled figures who fail Susan through no fault of their own, just because they are the sort of nice chaps who do fail people. Kemp as the doctor is delightfully gauche, tripping over metal frogs and medical decisions with equal clumsiness, and Branwell gives the vicar a gentle pomposity and an irritating desire not to offend. In an excellent ensemble, Joanna David’s querulous Muriel and the breezy, charming and ultimately dangerous Andy of Bill Champion stand out.
The production style is minimalist, with the set consisting of a bed of grass – a few square yards of garden or, maybe, a palatial spread? Jennie Boyer’s costumes point character cleverly (particularly the white-clad “ideal family”) and Alan Ayckbourn’s production inhabits the space like his own sitting room.