Susan is resentful of how life has turned out for her and is short on patience with her family members. She feels alone in her small world and so she is living an imaginary life alongside the real one. In this other life she is adored by her glossy family made up of beautiful people. She is attached to her make believe family and not detached as she is to her own; in her imagination she has made their lives interesting to her, and so she is interested in them, and she cares how they view her. Sadly, in true life, she is completely disinterested in husband, Gerald, particularly in regard to his book writing, and she has absolutely no time for her sister-in-law, Muriel and in hearing or sharing her problems.
In other words she has made her fake world to be quite the opposite in all respects; in this world her ordinary garden space has been transformed to having views of a distant lake, with tennis courts situated to the left and a swimming pool to the right. ‘Brother’ Tony hands her champagne to drink whatever the time of day, and her pretend husband, the suavely Andy, is a fantastic cook and is tentative to her femininity and her fragility. In this world she has a doting grown-up daughter called, Lucy, where the reality of life, and the most tragic thing, is that Susan has been estranged from her only child, her son, Rick, in recent years. This is the root of her unhappiness.
The works of others came into my consciousness during the performance, and with the exception of Henrik Ibsen, I found it interesting that it is work that came about after Woman in Mind premiered back in 1985. The three strong comparisons I will mention will do the work best at describing the nitty gritty, nuts ’n’ bolts of what this Aychbourn play is all about.
Firstly, there are elements of the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (based on the true life of John Knox) a man who lived inside his hallucinations for most of his life and who tried hard to ignore them as he grew older. Susan loves having her dream people around her at the beginning, but when they begin to betray her, she is bewildered and insecure and later she is desperate for them to go away…then the madness runs riot.
I mentioned Ibsen, because his Nora character from his famous play ‘A Doll’s House’, is like Susan, in that she is deliberately confined to a homely setting meant to symbolise her constrained position. Susan never leaves the stage throughout the whole performance, where all other characters frequently make their entrances on stage and their exits off. She is outside day and night and in all weathers, I could almost feel her isolation.
Lastly, a tenuous link admittedly, but Susan, when in her manic state, reminded me so much of Edina from TV’s Absolutely Fabulous, she has that ‘Hello sweetie’, champagne supping, immaturity and abandonment about her, and when she’s bored, boy we know she’s bored! Aychbourn never misses a chance to make the most of the comedy threads he has freed up for himself.
Susan is under the medical supervision of the family Doctor, Bill, but Bill is also part of her confused state. The script provides delicate treatment and sensitive exploration of a disturbed and mixed up mind, yet cleverly manages to keep the laughs on a level so that it does not turn into something uncomfortable to witness.
SUSAN (Meg Fraser)
BILL (Neil McKinven)
LUCY (Laura Dale)
TONY (Ncuti Gatwa)
ANDY (Andrew Wincott)
GERALD (Richard Conlon)
MURIEL (Irene MacDougall)
RICK (Scott Hoatson)
Reviewer, Debra Hall attended the press night showing of Woman In Mind at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre on Tuesday 17 June. Review is also published here