Review – Woman in Mind, Vaudeville Theatre

Monday 9 February 2009

woman-in-mindAndrew 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.

Which brings us, and not before time, to Alan Ayckbourn‘s Woman in Mind.

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.

Sadly Joanna David was indisposed but the shoes of the sister-in-law were more than adequately filled by understudy Sarah Lawn.

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.

Footnote

good-housekeeping-picture-cake-making* 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.

minstrel-cakes

14 Responses to “Review – Woman in Mind, Vaudeville Theatre”

  1. SuzieBee Says:

    My dear Whingers, I have a question for you. In a rather royal way, I wish to ask: What do you do? I have long been curious as to how you fill the time from 9am until 5pm during the week. Do you, perhaps, have jobs? I hope not. Such an idea seems rather unsuited to your contitutions.

    Congratulations on yet another review. Although I may disagree with the content of your reviews sometimes, they are always great fun to read.

  2. Penny Says:

    OMG. Does that book have both those recipes on the same page?! Fax it through to Carol immediately, but the mind boggles as to what you’d expect in return… Apple Grumble?

    Considering the minstrel cakes main ingredient appears to be “stale chocolate cake”, I’m assuming the effect the cook was aiming for was the same queasy nausea which is felt whenever that particularly horrible word is uttered.

  3. Chris Says:

    I saw this back in 1986 too – and I remember it very well, as it was the same time that my own mother was going through something of a breakdown…it was quite a painful but also illuminating experience! Glad to see it hasn’t lost its power. Saw some dreadful tosh by Ayckbourn a couple of years ago though….Improbable Fiction. Possibly the least funny “comedy” I’ve ever seen.

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    Is Suzie Bee related to December? I think we should be told.

  5. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    I’d forgotten the non-PC undertones of chocolate Minstrels. Golly! (That recipe page is the highlight of your review: toe-squirmingly brilliant…)

  6. Sam London Says:

    Yikes. I think I have the same cookbook.

  7. SuzieBee Says:

    Hello. Suzie Bee again. The very fact that I need to ask the question “Who, pray, is December?” suggests not.

  8. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    @ SuzieBee. Suggests not what? Or am I being characteristically thick?

  9. Suzie Bee Says:

    “JohnnyFox Says:
    Tuesday 10 February 2009 at 11:42 am

    Is Suzie Bee related to December? I think we should be told.”

    Not thick at all. Merely a little unobservant.


  10. @ Suzie. Ignore them. “December Bee” is a repeated nonsense line from Women In Mind.

    And thank you for your kind words. Sadly, we do both have jobs.

  11. offthemark Says:

    “It also ends rather strangely and the Whingers left the Vaudville rather unsure as to what had happened at the end.”

    I don’t believe this is a “spoiler” but was I alone in finding the ending particularly chilling because Susan’s final cry is oddly reminiscent of the cry made by alien body doubles in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Was there a pod tucked away among the on-stage greenery? It might help to make more sense of what happened at the end.

  12. Lost Tango Says:

    The end? Flashing blue light? Ambulance? Not too hard to figure out, surely? In this case not the body snatched but the mind, I suppose.


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