Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Woman In Mind’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 28 June.
By the time the action starts, the accident has already happened.
It involves a garden rake left lying about the lawn the wrong way up. Susan has stepped on it and is concussed. Her worried GP leans over her saying “Squeezy cow. Squeezy cow. December Bee?”
At least that’s how befuddled Susan hears it. In fact the audience experience the entire play through the eyes and ears of Susan…as she progressively loses her mind.
‘Woman in Mind’ is Alan Ayckbourn’s deepest analysis of a single psyche – that of an unfulfilled woman whose purpose in life has expired. Consequently, it’s the most demanding role he’s ever written for a female actor. Julia McKenzie and Helen Mirren have both been exhausted by it because it’s such a frightening challenge. But get it right, and you’ll have unfulfilled women weeping all over the auditorium.
It would appear that Susan has the perfect family; awfully, awfully kind and caring companions who bring her champagne and summer pudding and congratulate her on her latest novel. They kind of ‘float on’ from the wings, to ethereal choral music, in shiny bright white clothing….to luxuriate in the herb garden, tennis courts and swimming pool.
The trouble is, they are not real. Susan has invented them because her real family is so utterly uncaring. Her vicar husband has ignored her for years, his live-in sister has murdered her gold fish and her wayward son has joined a silent sect. They wear dowdy brown…and the garden is a postage stamp.
So who would you rather live with?
We’re in dark recesses of the mind here – and Ayckbourn’s writing is so brilliant it’s sometimes hard to laugh at the hilarious bits. He has quarried his own family history for the core of the story. But so much else is added from the Aladdin’s cave of his own mind – stuffed with collected treasures of tricky situations, abstract ideas, and curt lines – that we hear a much more universal ‘cri de coeur’.
The show depends so much on the leading lady. Meg Frazer’s ‘Susan’ is more mumsie than dangerous – but she does a fine line in biting sarcasm towards her ‘horrid’ real husband, and simpering sycophancy to her ‘ideal’ imaginary one.
She plays Susan as a wavering addict who realises her fantasies aren’t a good idea, but is so attracted to them, she can’t resist. She’s like someone struggling to come to terms with early Alzheimer’s … slipping in and out of reality; tormented by her own mental decline. Frazer is clearly on top of her role, yes, but the fact that she’s playing a character who’s not on top of herself is hugely unsettling, especially as Ayckbourn doesn’t encourage his audience to identify with anyone else on stage.
I’ve seen a number of actresses take on this role (including my own wife) and always it feels like they are doing a great job without actually cracking the nut. What Frazer does nail though, is her parallel with the mythical December Bee of the opening exchange. It’s a penetrating portrayal of a poor creature out of time and place.
This is a co-production with Dundee Rep and director Marilyn Imrie gives Susan two accents; a Scottish lilt when it’s real life, and received English when it’s a fantasy. It’s a device which underlines her schizophrenia … and might also serve as a subtle joke about the coming referendum.
Either way, it certainly helps to be in a ‘good place’ to see this play.
Amongst what Ayckbourn calls “the bits in between what people say” there’s always something you recognise about yourself and your loved ones. Which is why his plays are so painfully funny.