Woman in Mind
Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
At his best in plays like The Norman Conquests, triumphantly revived by Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic last year, Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a national treasure.
However, some of his literary games can be hard going and despite the efforts of one of his regular leading ladies, Janie Dee, in this 1986 play, the mix of social comedy and psychological drama doesn't really come off.
Miss Dee plays Susan, a middle-aged woman trapped in the most boring of marriages to Stuart Fox's Gerald, a vicar as dull as his brown clerical shirt. The extended family only makes matters worse, in the form of an excruciatingly clichéd sister-in-law and a son who has only recently left a sect that swore him to silence.
Following a gardening accident, a ray of sunshine is injected by the arrival of Bill, a doctor played with wit by Paul Kemp, who seems to get most of the best comic lines.
Strangely, the bang on the head semi-transports Susan into a parallel universe populated by the family that she wishes could replace her own. This consists of a dishy husband, charming brother and beautiful, intelligent daughter.
After the interval, the evening becomes considerably darker. Suddenly Woman in Mind becomes Woman Out of Her Mind, giving Janie Dee a chance to shine.
Now, even Susan's escapist fantasy will not run to order and the two worlds collide in a sometimes terrifying descent into madness.
The comedy in this revival directed by the playwright relies on the switches between Susan's two lives and is not a patch on the hilarious traumas suffered by Norman and his family. The drama is far more satisfying, centring on an ordinary woman who can no longer cope with a life going nowhere.
By the end of 140 minutes, it can be difficult to separate the real from the imagined but after a tedious first half, we have been allowed a sometimes illuminating journey into the brain of someone in the process of cracking up.
This revival of Woman in Mind has the feel of an out-of-town production whistled up to fill the West End theatre where it made its London debut, unexpectedly deserted at short notice by its previous incumbent, Piaf. Its primary appeal will be to Ayckbourn completists, although those interested in psychological trauma in the affluent echelons of contemporary society might also consider a visit.
Booking until 31 May
Reviewer: Philip Fisher