Woman In Mind

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WOMAN IN MIND at Dundee Rep for the Scotsman, 26.5.14.
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4 stars ****

FIRST SEEN IN SCARBOROUGH in 1985, Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind is essentially the story of one middle-aged woman’s journey into complete mental breakdown. Its heroine, Susie, is a troubled vicar’s wife, surviving a miserable marriage and a failed relationship with her only son thanks to a rich, full fantasy-life involving a complete different family, gorgeous, upper-class, wealthy and loving. When we first discover her, she is flat out on the lawn, after suffering a blow to the head from a garden rake; but it soon becomes clear that her confusion amounts to more than mild concussion, and that her imaginary family is no longer under her control.

What Ayckbourn achieves in Woman In Mind, in other words, is an example of his theatrical art at its greatest; in that he takes an apparently ordinary story of suburban despair, and adds echoing layers of resonance that speak volumes about the politics of both gender and class. Susie’s real-life husband, Gerald, is a sexless buffoon, with no idea what it would mean actually to love the woman he married; and there is something infinitely tragic about Susie’s dream life, which involves belonging to a boss-class as coldly violent towards outsiders as it is gushingly affectionate to its own sort. And all of this is magnificently conjured up in Marilyn Imrie’s beautiful new Dundee production, co-produced with Birmingham Rep, and played out on Ti Green’s gorgeous garden set of looming woodlands and clashing realities, superbly lit by Mark Doubleday wth images by Lewis den Hertog.

There will be some debate, perhaps, about Marilyn Imrie’s decision to use Scottish voices, in this quintessentially English play, to capture the difference of language between the fantasy family – who speak the poshest of upper-class English – and the real one, who talk like ordinary lower-middle-class folk. The location of the play, though, remains firmly in the Home Counties; and there is no faulting the production’s outstanding cast, led by the magnificent Meg Fraser as a powerful, sensual Susie, made harsh by misery. Just here and there, the play seems to subside into too much talk and not enough action, as if the actors were pinned to their garden deck-chairs. As a portrait of comic suburban unease shading into utter tragedy, though, Woman In Mind is a true British masterpiece; and at the play’s climactic moments, Ayckbourn’s language soars into a strange, fractured poetry that sears the mind with a terrible sense of anger, of sorrow, and of loss.

Dundee Rep until 7 June, and Birmingham Rep, 13-28 June.

ENDS ENDS

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