”Woman in Mind” at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

Marc Elliott (Andy) & Jenna Russell (Susan)
Marc Elliott (Andy) & Jenna Russell (Susan)
© Johan Persson

Alan Ayckbourn was just 46 when his 32nd play, Woman in Mind, premiered in 1985. Its subsequent West End transfer starred the irrepressible Julia McKenzie as Susan – now, some 37 years later it is McKenzie’s own protégé, Jenna Russell giving full throttled and devastating integrity to this brave and searing role.

Originally written as a woman in her 40s, director Anna Mackmin has – with Ayckbourn’s blessing – shifted Susan to being a woman in her 50s. Mackmin harnesses the aging vulnerabilities of a woman that is already feeling the redundancy of motherhood once her child has left the family home, along with the emotional and often misunderstood effects of reaching menopausal age. The slow and disturbingly clear unravelling of Susan’s mind is shattering to witness in the hands of Russell, who inhabits the increasingly claustrophobic psyche of her character with powerful results.

Susan has been married to Gerald (Nigel Lindsay – suitably gruff and uncommunicative) for years and the familiar stagnation of a marriage in crisis has set in. Their son Rick (Will Attenborough) has moved away and joined some kind of sect that disallows any kind of communication with his family. An imagined and grotesquely perfect alternative family steadily takes a firmer and ever more controlling grip of Susan in the deep recesses of her mind. Perfect husband, Andy (Marc Elliott), loving daughter, Lucy (Flora Higgins) and terribly eager brother, Tony (Orlando James) are all strappingly handsome and sickeningly nice. Bumbling doctor, Bill (Matthew Cottle – touchingly light-hearted) is the only person to see Susan’s desperate fight to keep the boundaries of reality and fantasy from swallowing her up whole.

Ayckbourn’s familiar and comfortable comedy is evident throughout – but he wonderfully manages to steer proceedings into horribly dark and sinister places with such an unperceptively gentle shift that we get a first-hand perspective of Susan’s struggles. The voices she hears and the bizarre actions she begins to take all make perfect sense as we sit with her – on the inside looking out. Mackmin manages the material brilliantly and deftly swerves from the more cumbersome comedic moments to punch through to the raw emotion of the frightening unravelling of Susan’s reality.

That loosening grip on reality leads to some brutal truths – how Susan feels about her husband, how Rick feels about his parents. It all drives her to descend further into a state of mind that she is unable to control, detaching ever more from the real world. Russell gives a beautifully poignant and crushingly disturbing performance. Her final scenes are devastating and heart breaking to watch.

Lez Brotherston’s garden set is beautifully observed with some great lighting and video designs from Mark Henderson and Simon Baker respectively – the storms of the mind darkening the stage in literal form as well as in performance is bracing and captivating.

There are moments that reveal the plays age – but these are easily forgiven. The strong support of an entirely solid cast place Russell front and centre of this darkly comic piece – and there she magnificently commands in emotional and penetrating style.