Woman in Mind: bleakly brilliant, desolate and disturbing Ayckbourn revival in Chichester

Woman In Mind by Alan Ayckbourn, Chichester Festival Theatre, September 23-October 15.
Marc Elliott & Jenna Russell in Woman in Mind - Photo Johan PerssonMarc Elliott & Jenna Russell in Woman in Mind - Photo Johan Persson
Marc Elliott & Jenna Russell in Woman in Mind - Photo Johan Persson

It’s been fashionable for years to mutter “Oh he can be very dark, you know” whenever Alan Ayckbourn gets mentioned, but Woman In Mind goes way beyond that. It’s a distinctly bleak and disturbing play – but desolate and haunting, even as it finishes, you feel it might actually turn out to be the most memorable main-house show of our Chichester summer. A woman in complete meltdown is inevitably a strange starting point for a comedy – which makes it very much Ayckbourn territory but he out-Ayckbourns himself on this one for an evening which plunges us into the depths of despair and isolation. Plays really don’t come much grimmer. And it is Jenna Russell as Susan who takes us there in a mesmerising performance in which she doesn’t leave the stage. But then again, she can’t. What we are seeing is her mind in freefall – a mind which creates an alternative rather happier reality for herself only for her ideal world to turn on her too.

It’s certainly not the funniest Ayckbourn you’ll ever see; and its cleverness is that by the end of it you will regret most of the laughs that you did let out.

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The play begins – apparently – just after Susan has trodden on a rake and taken a bash on the bonce. She comes round to find her super-solicitous husband Andy (Marc Elliott) looking after her, and then in bounce the gushingly plummy Tony (Orlando James) and Lucy (Flora Higgins) in a pastiche of a cheery 20s tennis party. It’s all clearly too good to true – and so it seems it is, as another reality intrudes in which her husband is a self-obsessed vicar intent on his magnum opus to the exclusion of all else (though he really isn’t a bad guy – very nicely played by Nigel Lindsay) and her estranged son (though he does turn up to row bitterly with her) has gone off and joined a sect (Will Attenborough).

But you can’t trust anything on this beautiful garden set. English country gardens are supposed to be all about reassurance, but there is none of that here as Susan’s two worlds clash and merge as her mind descends on its downward spiral.

There’s comic relief, particularly from Stephanie Jacob as Muriel, the kitchen-disaster sister-in-law obsessed with her dead husband; and from Matthew Cottle as Bill, the local doctor who’s got the sweetest crush on Susan. But there’s little solace as the play gets ever more bizarre and the twin worlds ever more out of control. It’s a remarkable performance from Jenna Russell – brilliant in fact on this bleakly brilliant night. It’s hardly a night of laughs, but rather better than that, it’s a night that will come back to haunt you. Susan asks how you can fight something you cannot see in perhaps the evening’s most telling line. It’s a heart-breaking, hugely affecting piece – maybe more so for the fact that it seems to take a while to find its stride. In the first half you have to trust that it is going somewhere; in the second half it takes the most unexpected and disorientating turns. Anna Mackmin’s excellent direction gives us all plenty to think about.