Woman in Mind, Vaudeville Theatre, London
Wednesday 11 February 2009
More than 20 years ago, the two Alans, Ayckbourn and Bennett, wrote two monologues for two vicars' wives, both called Susan and both underprovided for at home in the bedroom department. "Geoffrey's bad enough," said Bennett's Susan, in one of his television Talking Heads, "but I'm glad I wasn't married to Jesus".
Ayckbourn's Susan, who, in Woman in Mind, is surrounded on the garden lawn by two families, one real, one imagined, doesn't have so much of an issue with God. It's Gerald's 60-page history of the parish dating back to 1386 that's driving her mad. As well as the bad cooking of Gerald's sister Muriel, and her son Rick, who has joined a Trappist sect in Hemel Hempstead and declares, on arrival (breaking his habitual silence), that he's about to decamp with his new wife to Bangkok.
"She's a Thai," moans Susan. "Well, they can be, can't they," counters roly-poly Bill, the local doctor who harbours a secret crush on Susan (and maybe a death wish among some BBC racism-sensitive apparatchiks who might be lurking in the bushes). Actually, all that's lurking is a whining dog and Susan's fantasy family, who skip about in tennis whites, proffering obviously unrealistic plastic glasses of champagne.
Ayckbourn's production of a play that was first seen in London on this very stage in 1986 with Julia McKenzie as Susan, was slightly hampered on opening night with an over-sturdy understudy performance by Susan Lawn as Muriel, Joanna David being ill. But Janie Dee's sparkling depressive is a lovely lead, hurtling towards breakdown and spreading her legs on the lawn with her satanic other other half (aptly named Bill Champion).
Her mere other half, Gerald (Stuart Fox), pushes the boat out with a dodgy bottle of Marsala in one of Ayckbourn's classic suburban small-talk scenes, before the two worlds converge in Susan's head, creating one of two possible impressions: this is a brilliant way of suggesting the tragic process; or, this is an easy way of creating theatrical mayhem without resolving the narrative challenge of Susan's predicament.
Dee is irresistible as Susan, Paul Kemp delightful as the doctor, and Ayckbourn's production pitch-perfect. But the riot at the end now seems like a village pageant from another play, not a plausible conclusion to this one.
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