Woman in Mind, review: Ayckbourne’s Middle England drama feels stuck in the past

Woman in Mind, at Chichester Festival Theatre - Johan Persson
Woman in Mind, at Chichester Festival Theatre - Johan Persson

At a time when mental health is a subject of such fervent public discussion, it’s easy to forget that when Woman in Mind premiered in 1985, this was a relatively radical topic to explore on the stage. Alan Ayckbourn’s play delves into the psychology of a woman experiencing a breakdown in middle-class suburbia, but, despite its apparent topicality and some enjoyable comic performances, it comes across as a slightly dated satire that never quite hits home.

Struck by a rake in a freak garden accident, protagonist Susan (Jenna Russell) awakens to the sight of her daughter Lucy (Flora Higgins) and brother Tony (Orlando James) skipping across a manicured lawn in tennis whites. Handsome husband Andy (Marc Elliott) soon appears to take her in her arms, and the whole family has a jolly laugh as they gaze across the rolling grounds, tennis court and swimming pool.

Only this isn’t Susan’s real family. It is wish-fulfilment in the form of hallucination, the creation of a prettier home life where she is richer, smarter, and more loved by those around her. It is Susan’s reaction to a banal real-life home that is a terrifying amplification of many of the classic concerns of Middle England, complete with a loveless marriage and a son that no longer speaks to her.

Ayckbourn is most celebrated as a writer of comedy, and it is the moments of humour that are the play’s finest. Stephanie Jacobs does a great job as sister-in-law Muriel, a 1980s battleaxe who is ever obsessing over her dead husband, while Matthew Cottle is excellent as the hapless Doctor Windsor, who offers his well-meaning if confusing advice with a dose of self-deprecating good humour.

Oliver-winner Russell does a solid job in a role that demands her presence on Lez Brotherston’s English country garden-inspired stage for the entirety of the play’s runtime – though it does sometimes feel as though she is gyrating between either playing bewildered or fed up, with little else in-between.

Woman in Mind, at Chichester Festival Theatre - Johan Persson
Woman in Mind, at Chichester Festival Theatre - Johan Persson

The more knotty social concerns that the play has over a woman’s place in the world, however, no longer quite have the resonance they may have had back then. Susan’s deeply held anxieties over religion and class now seem a little parochial, while many of domestic problems she is so preoccupied by – including the live-in sister-in-law, and son joining a cult in Hemel Hempstead – no longer feel quite recognisable enough to deliver the deliver the gut punch they may have once done.

Woman in Mind remains a lot of fun, which the rippling laughter across the Chichester Festival Theatre auditorium attests to. But in the end it feels a little like the humour lacks a bit of purpose, because the central character study never quite clicks into place.

Until 15 Oct. Tickets: 01243 781312; cft.org.uk