A play in two minds

Lucy, Bill and Suasan

Laura Dale as daughter Lucy (left) and Meg Fraser as Susan watch Neil McKinven's Bill, Susan's doctor manfully trying to amuse an imaginary child he is pretending to see to humour his patient

Woman in mind

Birmingham Rep

****

ALAN Ayckbourn’s chronicle of a woman's descent into madness is a strange beast, at times a domestic comedy, at times a fantasy, and finally a surreal and disturbing farce.

First performed in 1985 much has been made of the perceived hidden meansings and messages of what is seen as one of Ayckbourn’s most personal plays. He is said to have changed the central character from a man to Susan so people would not think he was writing about himself.

He readily admits that the central character is influenced by his mother’s unhappy marriage to a bank manager in the 1950s while Susan’s son, Rick, joining a cult might have had its echoes in Ayckbourn’s own son Steven joining a Californian cult.

Whatever, provenance may be interesting but a lay stands or falls on what happens on stage and this joint production with Dundee Rep Ensamble ticks most of the boxes.

Meg Fraser is superb as the troubled Susan. She is onstage for the whole play and is produces a witty, funny and ultimatey touching performance with immaculate comic timing.We first meet her as she comes round after being knocked out by a garden rake in her tiny back garden. Of a home she shares with her vicar husband Gerald, who gives boring a bad name.

Gerald, played with a splendidly infuriating self righteousness by Richard Conlon, has long ago lost romantic or sexual interest in Susan, fallen out of love in favour of susan and andyhis book, a mammoth tome of all of 60 pages on the history of the parish since 1368.

As an indication of how far apart Susan and Gerald have drifted he also pays more attention to his live in sister, the self centred, and somewhat stupid Muriel Muriel, played nicely by Irene Macdougall.

Muriel’s greatest claim to fame is her spectacular lack of culinary skills producing meals which are never forgotten by those who have survived them, however hard they try – burnt elderberry omelette was her lunch speciality on the day of the play.

Andrew Wincott as the fantasy husband, handsome, dashing, rich and ever attentive to his adored wife Susan

 

Rick, played with that touch of angst any parent would recognise by Scott Hoatson, has not spoken to his parents for two years - the rules of the cult – but is now back in the land of the talking and has a secret to impart along with some home truths for Susan.

Holding it all together, he isn’t really but he is the nearest Susan has to an authority figure, is the local doctor Bill Windsor, played with a delightful vagueness by Neil McKinven, who revels a more than professional fondness for Susan as he attempts to administer to her medical needs after a severe bump on the head.

That is the real world inhabited by Susan, a loveless marriage, a fraught relationship with a son, and a mixture of hostility and contempt for her sister-in-law.

Whether it is her bump on the head or the life that has trapped her we never really know although it would be reasonable to assume such complete and well established fantasy might need more than a blow from standing on the business end of a garden rake could create.

This is a whole world where the tiny garden has become an estate with lake, woods, tennis court and a whole family who seem to have wandered in from the next estate to Downton Abbey sometime in the 1920s.

There is adoring husband Andy, sophisticated, attentive, brilliant chef and presumable extremely rich played with a bit of dash by Andrew Wincott, stunningly attractive daughter Lucy, who unlike Rick, is close and shares even her innermost thoughts with mother, played up market style by Laura Dale and there is Susan’s ever loving brother Tony, played with a hint of casual violence, at least when he is out shooting in the estate, by susan and LucyNcuti Gatwa, who is originally from Rwanda.

That presents a rather obvious flaw in the brother and sister relationship but it is after all a fantasy, so Susan can have who she likes in her imaginary family.

The family of her mind are in many ways the opposites of the family of her life with attentive husband, loving, sharing daughter and a brother looking after her every need rather than the fractious relationship with a self-centred sister-in-law who cares more about her dead husband than anyone else.

At first the sophisticated family inhabiting the estate of her mind are mere visitors, passers by interrupting reality, but as the play goes on they become more and more part of her life until eventually both worlds collide in her final descent into madness.

Susan enjoying her perfect relationship with her perfect fantasy daughter  Lucy

There are some very funny lines, particularly the sniping between the rather pompous Gerald, and Susan, and some funny lines which should strike a chord, sometimes uncomfortably with parents and long-time married couples.

Timing throughout is excellent with plenty of throw away lines which may appear to be discarded afterthoughts but placed with beautifully care for maximum effect.

Ti Green’s simple design of a small lawn and rockery, surrounded by the trees of the imaginary estate, depends upon Mark Doubleday’s excellent lighting to carry us from reality to fantasy, with an effective thunderstorm thrown in. There is a clever angled stage, almost a window into Susan’s mind hung above the stage where we see snapshots of people inside, or elements of the seasons ion video projections, which is quite effective while director Marilyn Imrie has kept a nice balance between a funny, if rather barbed comedy and the realisation that we are watching a mental illness develop.

The second half seems to flag a little, perhaps as the neuroses collide, or the madness gathers breath before moving the plot on but you cannot fault the acting or production. It is a fascinating and at times disturbing performance particularly as we start to realise that we cannot rely on anything Susan tells us – even her reality might be a complete fiction. To might not be true To 28-06-14

Roger Clarke

17-06-14

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