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.
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.