Woman in Mind review – when the vicar’s wife’s worst nightmare is her own life

Chichester Festival theatre
Jenna Russell stars in Alan Ayckbourn’s exploration of mental illness with an accomplished cast of supporting characters ably adding to the anguish

It’s clear from the very beginning of Woman in Mind that something is terribly wrong. “I love you more than words can ever say,” declares Susan’s dishy husband. But husbands never say things like that in Alan Ayckbourn plays, and they’re rarely dishy, so he must surely be a hallucination.

And so he is, along with the adoring daughter and jolly brother who inhabit a glowing world of endless summer, tennis whites and mid-morning champagne. Susan, after a clunk on the head in her garden, returns from fantasy to unglamorous suburbia, where she is a miserable vicar’s wife mired in a loveless marriage. “You’re describing somewhere I wouldn’t choose to live even in my worst nightmares!” she snaps – and that somewhere is her real life.

Ayckbourn’s women often occupy the margins of their own lives. In this 1985 play, no one can speak plainly about mental illness, but Susan’s unhappiness goes beyond her lack of career or grating family. Never off stage, Jenna Russell doesn’t soften the character – her oval eyes fill with alarm, but she’s often scaldingly mean-spirited, particularly to her estranged son (Will Attenborough, quivering with tension). One of Britain’s great Stephen Sondheim performers, Russell shapes scenes like arias and spits out the swivelling staccato of Susan’s torment.

Nigel Lindsay in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival theatre.
Sodden with sadness … Nigel Lindsay. Photograph: Johan Persson

Bold for its time, Ayckbourn’s exploration of mental illness can feel laborious, no longer theatrically startling and in Anna Mackmin’s production the distress is less lacerating, the seep between registers less surreal than they could be. But Mackmin does dig into the supporting characters, who emerge sodden with sadness: from Nigel Lindsay’s vicar, his clothes the colour of yesterday’s gravy, delivering breezy platitudes with a grim little boogie; to Stephanie Jacob’s sister-in-law, a martyred grump in lumpy crochet; and especially Matthew Cottle’s flustered doctor, hair askew and corduroy rumpled, hinting at a frosty marriage of his own.

Mark Henderson’s lighting and Simon Baker’s video nudge Susan between sunlit fantasy and greyscale reality, adding apocalyptic tints as everything skedaddles out of kilter. An ambulance hovers as threateningly in Susan’s imagination as it did for Blanche DuBois: there’s no consolation in Ayckbourn’s drama.

• At Chichester Festival theatre until 15 October.


David Jays

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Theatre review: Woman in Mind / Stephen Joseph, Scarborough

Stephen Joseph, Scarborough
This piece from Ayckbourn's mid-period is designed to leave you baffled, says Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

11, Sep, 2008 @11:54 PM

Article image
Theatre review: Woman in Mind, Vaudeville, London

Vaudeville, London
Confirms Ayckbourn's status as a master of tragi-comedy, says Michael Billington

Michael Billington

09, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Woman in Mind review – tremendous production of Alan Ayckbourn's drama
A funny and unsettling vision of mental ill health, with a superb central performance from Meg Fraser, writes Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher

25, May, 2014 @4:19 PM

Article image
'The audience booed, the cast fled' – playwrights relive their worst flops
Alan Ayckbourn’s orchestra decamped to the pub, Lynn Nottage’s social satire became all too real, and April De Angelis is still angry with her critics

Interviews by Kate Wyver

01, May, 2020 @2:43 PM

Article image
Karaoke Theatre Company review – Alan Ayckbourn's brilliantly bad new comedy
A seemingly second-rate improv troupe zips through dated scenarios – expecting full audience participation – in Ayckbourn’s ridiculously funny spoof

Alfred Hickling

13, Jul, 2016 @11:28 AM

Article image
Better Off Dead review – Ayckbourn's washed-up writer satire backfires
Alan Ayckbourn’s 82nd play, about an over-the-hill crime novelist, struggles to come up with anything new to say about creativity, fame or failure

Catherine Love

12, Sep, 2018 @12:58 PM

Article image
How the Other Half Loves review – hilarious Ayckbourn, fresh and fighting
Alan Ayckbourn’s vintage comedy about adultery and male bullying is shockingly up to date

Michael Billington

01, Apr, 2016 @11:18 AM

Article image
Anno Domino review – marital woe and toxic politics in Ayckbourn's lockdown play
The playwright and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, play all eight parts – from 70-somethings to teenagers – in his 84th drama

Arifa Akbar

25, May, 2020 @3:10 PM

Article image
Family Album review – Alan Ayckbourn’s playful snapshot of social flux
Skipping between three generations from the 50s to the present, this occasionally poignant play pulls back from the emotional force of its concept

Mark Fisher

07, Sep, 2022 @10:49 AM

Article image
No Knowing review – Alan Ayckbourn presents more gift-wrapped explosives
In two Christmas stocking-fillers, Knowing Her and Knowing Him, a couple celebrating 40 years of marriage discover the deep freeze in their relationship

Alfred Hickling

07, Dec, 2016 @12:44 PM