The Theatreguide.London Review
Woman in Mind
Vaudeville Theatre Spring 2009
Alan Ayckbourn's 1986 comedy is one of his darkest and deepest. It delivers its share of laughs, but also a sweet sadness that lingers in the memory longer than the comedy.
Or at least that's the effect it had 23 years ago. The playwright has directed this new revival with a greater emphasis on the darkness of mood and characterisation, and the result is a more troubling and less entertaining evening than some of us remember two decades on.
Woman in Mind is about Susan, a forty-something vicar's wife who is unhappy in her marriage and her empty life, so that she has invented a fantasy family to daydream about, golden and perfect figures who live to love and celebrate her.
But just at that point where the real world is becoming less and less bearable, she begins to lose control of the fantasy. Her dream family starts to appear without bidding and interfere with real conversations and, even worse, to stop adoring her so unquestioningly.
The play ends with Susan in total mental collapse, at first unable to keep reality and fantasy apart, and then abandoned by both.
What made it work in 1986, aside from Ayckbourn's ability to sprinkle clever jokes through the most serious of scenes, was the air of sweet sadness, the image of Susan as an innocent victim of real-world unhappiness then losing the one refuge she had.
Authors have every right to rethink their own works, and Ayckbourn has evidently decided that Susan is much less of a victim of life and bears more responsibility for her own mental and emotional fate, and that Woman in Mind is more about a kind of karmic justice than unwarranted unhappiness.
He has directed Janie Dee to play Susan as a much stronger and unpleasant character, changing the tone of the whole work - and not for the better.
For one thing, this new characterisation doesn't really work psychologically. You can't help feeling that a woman this strong wouldn't need the comforts of fantasy or that, if she did, she would be able to control her inventions.
Even worse, it changes the play dramatically. With Susan a forceful, even nasty woman, the real world characters around her - her husband, son and sister-in-law - stop being her tormentors and almost become her victims, turning the play on its head.
We are meant to see her dreary vicar husband as an anchor weighing down a woman deserving of happiness, but what we feel in this revival is a harmlessly small man being unfairly berated by his wife for not being what he can't be.
To put it another way, it is very difficult to like Susan this time around, and if we don't like her, it is difficult to find much sadness - or comedy - in her breakdown.
I repeat that this is clearly what the author-director wants, and his cast delivers the darker vision impeccably. Janie Dee wrestles to hold our sympathy even as she plays all of Susan's ugliness and virtually hands the role of victim to Stuart Fox's put-upon vicar and Paul Kemp's befuddled doctor.
Woman in Mind remains an object lesson in Alan Ayckbourn's unique ability to mix comedy and darker psychology. It just isn't quite as nice a play this time around.
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