Andrew was very, very busy in his garden Saturday morning.* Trimming his vine, to be exact. Thank goodness he didn’t fall on his secateurs or – worse – knock himself out with the rake.
Imagine that he had awoken in some fantasy life of his own making: sitting all day in a theatre watching his all-time favourite productions on some kind of bizarre cerebral loop: Hairspray, Entertaining Mr Sloane, La Cage aux Folles, things with Jasper Britton (excluding Fram, of course) or perhaps – and more appropriately – constant mental re-runs of The Chalk Garden.
Imagine his whole world viewed through a proscenium arch. Perhaps Maria Friedman would serve him tea at his imagined matinées and a Dame of the British Empire would hook him up to a Merlot drip each evening.
Imagine Andrew’s tailor-made world fashioned to exclude Caryl Churchill, Pinter, Joe Sutton and Polly Stenham. It would be a world without theatrical boredom, restlessness or frustration. A perfect world of complete and utter theatrical Judith Bliss.
Phil had seen this play twenty-odd years ago (the last three being the oddest) at the same venue when Julia McKenzie gave an award-winning performance, but he can remember little about it. This production has been brought down from Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre by Bill Kenwright (and without even a whiff of Jenny Seagrove) where it was originally staged in the round but – presumably with the Whingers in mind – they’ve very wisely re-staged it behind a lovely, sensible proscenium arch.
Susan (Janie Dee) is bored, restless and frustrated with her life. Gerald, her dull vicar husband (Stuart Fox), spends all his time writing a short history of the parish, her son has disowned his parents and joined a sect in Hemel Hempsteed and her widowed sister in law hangs around and cooks terrible meals.
Waking up after knocking herself out with the garden rake she hallucinates a happier family than the one she’s in, but as the real and imagined worlds start to collide it becomes less clear which is the more malign.
The Whingers were a bit wary of this one having derived very little enjoyment from revivals of Mister Ayckbourn’s oeuvre recently (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests) so it came as a bit of a relief to find themselves happily drinking the whole thing in.
Andrew even uttered the words “rather sweet” at the interval and not simply because he was nursing a bag of Minstrels (the sweeties – not the cakes – see footnotes) in his sweaty palm.
Janie Dee, who doesn’t leave the stage for the entire play is excellent. It’s no mean achievement that she can make Susan sympathetic given that – like Phil – she spends much of her time spitting out disproportionately vitriolic remarks about those close to her. She should be rather hard to like or care about even in her madness but somehow – unlike Phil – Miss Dee carries you along with her.
WIM is is different from many of Aykbourn’s plays as it isn’t overtly comic which clearly caused some confusion among the audience. During their customary interval earwigging the Whingers overheard a punter lamenting, ” I thought this was meant to be a comedy”.
Well it is comic at times, but has a much darker underbelly. Is Susan having a breakdown? Is fantasy really better than reality? It also ends rather strangely and the Whingers left the Vaudville rather unsure as to what had happened at the end . It was, in fact, a day of enigmatic endings as they had come to the theatre almost directly from seeing the film (or rather the filmed play) Doubt.
Sir Alan (Ayckbourn, not Sugar) directs his own play subtly and the whole cast do a nice job of not overplaying the comedy, most of which belongs to the bumbling doctor Bill (Paul Kemp, very good).
Susan’s fantasy family – husband (Bill Champion), brother (Martin Parr) and daughter Lucy (Perdita Avery) – do a great job of tipping gently from perfect to creepy.
Strange, we didn’t expect to get much out of this, but it really was quite haunting and lovely and Janie Dee is indeed rather special. Sold.
* Phil, on the other hand, was in “domestic goddess” mode. To be precise, he was busy in his kitchen searching through his recipe books for culinary inspiration.
Imagine his delight when in his 1946 edition of Good Housekeeping Picture Cake Making he stumbled across the perfect thing for his promised recipe swap with Carol Thatcher.