Woman in Mind is the 32nd play by Alan Ayckbourn that first premiered in Scarborough in 1985. It then went on to receive excellent reviews in London’s Vaudeville Theatre in 1986 and also in York’s Drama Barn in 2015. At first glance, the bare synopsis might appear to be a bit of a modern stereotype: the protagonist is an unhappy wife with a dull husband and an estranged son, who creates an ideal alternate family through her imagination and whose fantasy then blurs with the real family until the two ultimately collide. If it sounds banal it is with good reason, because it withholds any indication of this strange and original premise’s striking execution on the physical stage.
All the scenes take place in a set gorgeously constructed with copious amounts of paper roses and an archway to depict an idyllic garden. The play begins with a seemingly minor accident that expertly paces an accumulation of consequences for the main protagonist Susan, brilliantly performed by Clare Duffy. Her husband, Gerald (Will Heyes), and her son Rick (Michael Smith), as well as her sister-in-law Muriel, (Vanessa Ostick), all form part of her ‘real family’. Her illusory family are performed by Susan’s extravagant and dandyish husband Andy, (Andrew Watts), her hot-headed brother Tony (Jack Gates), and her bubbly daughter Lucy (Leigh Douglas). What becomes very clear early on and what is most distinctive about the plot is how Susan’s consciousness entirely constructs the behaviour and language of the characters. Furthermore, while the illusory family is completely a product of her fantasy, we largely see the ‘real’ characters through her unreliable perspective and always have to cross-reference what she says or does with the perceptions of other characters on the stage.
The ill-managed reconciliation of Susan’s two families allows for some comic situations, on top of the fact that the characters are already darkly comic to begin with. In fact, it is largely due to the black, but subtle and well-timed comedy of the characters’ mismatching conceptions and mentalities which drives the play forwards and succeeds in constantly keeping the audience focused and intrigued. This is also largely due to the fact that the complete individuality and control of the actors over their roles creates an entirely convincing piece of realism, even if it uses elements of fantasy and the supernatural. Although the play always takes place in a garden, Susan’s fantasy transforms the boundaries of the stage into an increasingly absurd space that does not fit into the logical system of the play. More importantly, it draws attention to the illusion and constructiveness of the stage itself and the limits of a ‘fixed setting’.
The sound and lighting is also used exceptionally well to evoke a sense of place beyond the confines of the stage. Ultimately, one could say the play questions the role of women, religion, mental illness and family identity in a modern world. But more importantly, while it does so it makes us laugh, and makes us all the more receptive to these issues that would be lost in a more serious play. If you could see only one play this term at the Drama Barn, I would personally recommend that you make it this one. Everything about the production—from the casting, to the set, the costumes, the light and the sound—including of course the actual text and content of the play, makes it truly one of a kind, and will not fail to leave you with a Woman in Mind.
Friday 30th January – Sunday 1st February, 7.30 pm
£4 for members and £5 for non-members.
Available online http://www.yusu.org/tickets or at the door.