Woman In Mind: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Woman In Mind at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in May 1985. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced. Extracts from reviews of the original West End production of Woman In Mind can be found here.

Woman In Mind (by Martin Hoyle)
"Those of us who have detected demonic presences lurking on the back lawns of Alan Ayckbourn's suburbia are vindicated. His new play at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round begins as
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as bored Susan escapes from her dreary marriage into fantasising wish fulfilment; adds a dash of Blithe Spirit when she baffles her everyday companions by addressing the apparently invisible presences: and turns into a suburban Exorcist with intimations of diabolic possession, the desperately isolated heroine left gibbering on a darkening stage.
All of which is unfair to Ayckbourn who remains uniquely Ayckbourn: though his latest look at the tragi-hilarious frustrations, inarticulacies and uncommunicative cross-purposes of the middle classes has moments on automatic pilot. There is a touch of the mechanical TV sit-com formula in such running gags as a whining in-law's culinary disasters or the (60-page) booklet on parish history that has absorbed the energies of Russell Dixon's blandly evasive vicar for years.
To compensate for the absence of comic set-pieces or stabbing social observation we get a deeper and darker foray into typical Ayckbourn territory: the intelligent and imaginative woman driven into solitude by the obtuse incomprehension of those around her.
Just Between Ourselves and Absent Friends tipped the victim-figure into near-catatonic withdrawal and breakdown respectively. Here, following a blow on the head, middle-aged Susan copes by creating a phantom family, white-clad and graceful: Robin Herford's still passionate husband, enunciating the idiom of better-class romantic fiction ("We'd all be lost without you... I love you more than words can ever say"); a younger brother whom John Hudson turns into a sportingly gilded youth from Dornford Yates; and an adoring daughter whose blond prettiness Caroline Webster makes as sinister as the children's ambivalent innocence in The Turn of the Screw. The contrast with Susan's real husband - Mr Dixon at his most stockily prosaic - and dependent sister-in-law - Heather Stoney, all scrawny Schadenfreude - rightly cues a black-out of horror and disgust.
As in a dream, the imagined family absorbs elements from reality: the daughter assumes the scholastic brilliance that Susan unconsciously envies in the children of her bumbling doctor, for instance. But they begin to arrive uninvited, interfere, take over, reveal themselves as parts of Susan herself. "Who are you?" she cries to the perfect lover she thinks she has created; the sudden darkness glows with the demon-king's traditional red in one of those presentiments of evil that cast an early evening chill over so many golden Ayckbourn afternoons,
Echoing that most underrated of Ayckbourn's recent plays,
Way Upstream - a journey to the heart of darkness on a violently chaotic river-trip - reality and fantasy mingle, the comedy underpinned by an almost Calvinist conviction of rigidly-ordained damnation and grace. The climax is a nightmare jumble of shattered fragments of reality juxtaposed into a surreal mosaic. A fantasy wedding turns into a race-meeting. The white-clad spectacle (even topper and tails are pristine) becomes nonsensical, inconsequential, a Fellini dream-sequence (Susan of the Spirits?).
This fascinating play confirms the author's recent preoccupation with the darker side of human nature. It will disappoint admirers of the peerless clown; but in place of frenetic comic virtuosity we have a sardonic comment on where desperate escape-routes from painful reality can lead us. Some compassion, much pessimism; the usual fine teamwork under the author's own direction. Pleading not to be forgotten, Ursula Jones, the woman in mind is haunting in her final garbled cries of "December bee! December bee!" as the world fades into blackness."
(Financial Times, 3 June 1985)

Savage Spirit Of The Family (by Robin Thornber)
"The central character of Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is one of the most moving and devastating that he has created.
A parson's wife, Susan seems to be sentenced to a subordinate life. While the great man lives for his great work - which is actually nothing more than a 60-page history of the parish for the civic society - he is ministered to by his wife and sister, an equally unhappy and unfulfilled widow.
Susan's vitality is directed into an active fantasy life, peopling the play with an idealised family, invisible to others, which positively mirrors the negative gaps in her own reality.
Instead of being a peripheral supporter, she is at the centre of their concerns. She renounces a life of pampered luxury with a ruggedly handsome husband who says and does all the protective things women dream of.
Instead of the competitive sister-in-law, there's a fiercely loyal younger brother. And her awkwardly alienated son is replaced with a successful and devoted daughter.
Ayckbourn's production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough brilliantly juxtaposes and superimposes these two worlds. Horrid actuality is mischievously invoked by Russell Dixon's insufferably smug clergyman and Heather Stoney as his crassly awful sister.
And there is a superlative performance from Ursula Jones as Susan, a little girl longing to be taken care of but growing in awareness that her dreams are turning into a nightmare.
As Ayckbourn digs relentlessly deeper into her psyche the farce becomes more bizarre, so the volume of laughter increases to block out the pain until the last, lingering moment as she sinks into incoherence.
Who else has the nerve, the assurance, and the accomplishment to leave us on such a downbeat of despair, by way of such merriment? Who else could turn the dramatic cliché of a knock on the head into such a compassionate study of the damage we unthinkingly, unfeelingly, do to each other?"
(The Guardian, 1 June 1985)

In The Mind (by Stella Flint)
"If I had ever really figured out the meaning of existential, I suspect I would apply it to Alan Ayckbourn's new comedy for the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough, where it opened yesterday evening.
Now you see them, now you don't; it all depends on Susan, leading lady of
Woman in Mind. Concussed by a treacherous blow from a garden rake, she perceives a family that might have been, a beautiful, affectionate trio, haunting her spacious garden, the tennis court, the lake.
Husband Gerald may feel anguish over her inability to recover instantly and resume her usual round of servility, subject to petty torment. Russell Dixon endows this pompous man of the cloth - vicar is too brief, long windedness is of his essence - with a rare comic quality.
He deserves indigestion from his mean-spirited sister's atrocious cooking. Should Heather Stoney's Muriel really stay forever, the afflictions of middle age, of disillusion and frustration will suit her waspish tongue precisely.
Maybe Susan finds a soul-mate in Bill, Barry McCarthy's eager doctor, suddenly delighted that she is not his own patient. Maybe Rick will return from his quasi-religious sect that forbids him to speak to his parents (see the Gospel according to St Matthew). Torn Bowles is the son who can lay cruel emphasis upon his accusations of past embarrassing behaviour.
There is sorrow at the heart of the play, hilarity in its effect. The confusion of realities, the well-judged changes of mood, playful use of language and imagination are Ayckbourn at his best. Ursula Jones as Susan exploit every possibility in a gift of a part, under Ayckbourn's own direction."
(Daily Telegraph, 31 May 1985)

Woman In Mind (by John Peter)
"Being able to write a good play is not, on the other hand, the same thing as having something to say. That is an accurate but possibly less than fair comment on Alan Ayckbourn's new play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Woman In Mind is about a woman nearly out of her mind. Susan (Ursula Jones) is married, if that is the word, to Gerald, an insufferably smug clergyman (Russell Dixon), whose energies are now entirely devoted to the writing of the history of his parish in the past 600 years. Their grown-up son has joined a cranky sect in Hemel Hempstead, one of whose rules is that you don't speak to your parents: at any rate, on his rare visits, Rick doesn't speak to his.
The more we see of Susan and Gerald the more we see Rick's point: living with them must have been like an English suburban version of Colditz. Ayckbourn's point is, I think, that all three of them live in the spiritual captivity of loveless family life, but that Susan, being a woman, is the only one who is denied a way of escape.
The result is that she begins to hallucinate. She imagines for herself another family, socially several notches above her own: a debonair and loquaciously adoring husband, a handsome and chivalrous brother, and a pliant, loving daughter, who haunt her in her garden clad in glittering white.
I don't know how I'd find my way out of such a situation, and I don't think Ayckbourn quite knows either. The ending is hilarious, deftly managed, but inconclusive. Ayckbourn the craftsman organises a comic tableau which is almost too neat for comfort, and makes you think that Ayckbourn the moralist would have liked to end things on a much harsher note - as he did, for example, in
Just Between Ourselves. Life may be a comedy; but comedy is no laughing matter." *
(Sunday Times, 1 June 1985)

Ongoing Fantasy Situation (by Martin Cropper)
"Like logs on a slow-moving river, the statistics pile up: the thirtieth year of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, the thirty-second play of Alan Ayckbourn to be premiered here. Or maybe, since Mr Ayckbourn's effusions follow such a familiar scheme, we should call this Part 32 of the same work.
As usual we discover mild, unstylish, rather feeble-minded, but not unsympathetic, middle-class characters humouring one another's foibles and wriggling in the grip of conventional contradictions which require an outside force for their happy resolution. In this instalment of the continuing situation comedy, the outside force comes from within the central character's mind and the resolution is quizzical to the point of bafflement.
The woman of the title comes to herself sprawled in her garden with a man speaking gobbledegook at her. It emerges that she has knocked herself out by standing on the tines of her rake and that the man is a GP. To his insistence that she is in a small, unremarkable suburban garden, the woman opposes her fantasy, liberated by concussion, that she is the mistress of expansive acres peopled by an adoring family who talk posh, dress all in white and drink "champers".
With a fantasy life such as this, it might be thought that she deserves everything she gets from her real family - her husband, a stodgy vicar, who pays more attention to his history of the parish than he does to the connubial bed, her drab sister-in-law who makes omelettes with Earl Gray instead of herbs, and finally her disaffected son, a refugee from a repressive cult.
These "real" people are unfortunately only a shade less stock than the phantoms which increasingly contaminate the woman's perception, and which take a turn for the demonic. Her husband's manuscript is unaccountably burned during a thunderstorm, and her fantasy family stage an almost incomprehensible finale combining a wedding with a race meeting.
Ursula Jones is pettish and rather fraught in the lead role and Russell Dixon seems altogether too acute for her husband. Barry McCarthy as the GP is Ayckbourn Man incarnate: itchy, weight-shifting, embarrassed and embarrassing." *
(The Times, 4 June 1985)

Woman In Mind
"The heroine of Woman in Mind, Alan Ayckbourn's new play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, begins to hear and talk gibberish after cracking her head on a garden rake. 'December me?' Susan (Ursula Jones) asks the doctor (Barry McCarthy) instead of 'Remember me?' and 'December me?' soon becomes 'December bee,'; once-busy-creature doing this world's work, now blundering absurdly off course, out of season and out of time. Woman In Mind is a play about dislocation and an unfulfilled existence, and it takes place largely in Susan's head while she is waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
In the process she improves her life considerably. She hallucinates scenes of triumph over Gerald (Russell Dixon), the plump and wincing vicar to whom she is unlovingly wed, and over his sister, the dim and grieving Muriel (Heather Stoney) who cannot distinguish between fine herbs and Earl Grey. Susan rescues her real son (o joy!) from a Trappist order in Hemel Hempstead, but then (o horror!) sees him off to the Far East with an excessively sensitive Thai wife.
She fantasises not only a garden many times larger than her own, complete with tennis courts, herbarium and distant lake, but also the perfect family to fill it: younger brother, adoring daughter and the kind of slim husband who comes out on to the lawn with a tray of champagne and a tender smile on his face, saying 'Here, drink it! It's vintage!' These three are dressed entirely in white. It is later suggested that the Devil himself may take on the seductive guise of English family life, and Susan wonders if she is possessed.
It is with the kind of woman that Susan herself is supposed to be that the play proves disappointingly unsure in its present form. It is clear neither from Ayckbourn's production nor from Miss Jones's performance whether Susan's aspirations are being mocked or approved. She has been directed to play straightforwardly for sentiment and tomboy pluck and the result, though rueful, is unsettlingly fey.
It is possible to imagine actresses with the individuality of, say, Maureen Lipman, Prunella Scales or Brenda Blethyn making something sharper of the role, but at present it refers exclusively to the Darling Mummy tradition of English theatre and to little sort of recognisable life outside it. Plenty of good jokes among the eccentrics literally round the edge of Susan's mind but a very pale vision of embattled normality at the core."
(The Observer, 16 June 1985)

Woman In Mind (by David Jeffels)
"Alan Ayckbourn proves that despite having written 31 plays, most of which have been seen in the West End, He can still produce new ideas in
Woman in Mind, which had its premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
For this latest play he has entered the world of fantasy and strikes something of a blow for womanhood, basing his work on a woman with suspected concussion who is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Despite this new slant, Ayckbourn has peppered his play with his usual dry humour while getting deep into the mind of the woman.
Ursula Jones is outstanding as the central character and her strong performance helped the pace of the play. Her two "families" and her role in them, escaping from the real one as the wife of a vicar and the mother of a drop-out son, into the other as the wife of a romantic and the mother of a longed-for pretty daughter, has provided Ayckbourn with a wealth of interesting material. He has created some highly convincing characters and the cast is to be commended for some excellent performances.
Amid the hallucinations are to be found delightful characters such as Muriel the cook-maid, superbly played by Heather Stoney, and Bill, the insipid family doctor played by Barry McCarthy.
Other parts are played by Robin Herford, John Hudson, Caroline Webster, Russell Dixon, and Tom Bowles. The play, which opens the 30th season of the Scarborough theatre, is ably directed by Ayckbourn himself and designed by Adrian P. Smith. It is one of three plays to run throughout the summer season."
(The Stage, 20 June 1985)

A Play Of Power And Vision (by Nick Gammage)
"It is tempting to say that Alan Ayckbourn's new play
Woman In Mind shows a playwright of immense importance at the height of his powers; but who knows where his outsize talent may yet lead.
The play (directed at Scarborough's Theatre In The Round by the author) examines the mental disintegration of a sensual and sensitive woman who has suffered long years of loveless, sterile marriage to a straight-laced, humourless clergyman.
She creates a fantasy world where her repressed feelings and desires have full rein. Gradually that world begins to take over, and the difference between fantasy and reality is impossible to spot.
With the audience perched all round and above the action, it was easy to feel like a medical student watching the surgical exploration and analysis of a specimen, carried out with precision, enormous understanding and honesty.
It is a play of Shakespearean power and vision, charting the inner-tussle over whether to suppress or express mighty emotions. And there is even a climatic thunderstorm scene reminiscent of
King Lear.
The suffocatingly horrible cleric Gerald (Russell Dixon) is a frighteningly brilliant creation. Ursula Jones gives a quite unforgettably robust performance as his troubled wife Susan, who is on stage throughout.
The construction of the play is virtually flawless, with immaculate control of pace and tension, and fluent, compelling dialogue."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 7 June 1985)

Woman In Mind (by Desmond Pratt)
"As director of productions, Alan Ayckbourn has chosen to open this, the 30th anniversary season of theatre in the round at Scarborough, with his latest play, his 32nd comedy, Woman In Mind.
It is a work which will puzzle many, annoy some of his ardent followers, but delight a few, such as myself, for the author proposes two conundrums - what is marriage and where does it take us?
But refuses to arrive at an answer to the dark dilemmas.
The play is littered with references to the after-world, to God, even its operative setting somewhere in the world of outer space.
But, as Ayckbourn has said, he gives his characters chance to develop and dictate the run of the play but they retained the dignity of resolving their own histories. Here they do not.
Rather do they dissolve their futures in a mass of fine words ending in the stark lights of what I interpret to be ensuing madness.
Yet it is for me two, hours of carefully casual, considered desperation and it is, in the main, very funny, but its incompleteness has disturbed several people.
Susan (in which Ursula Jones finds many answers to many conflicting confrontations - she is a mistress of comic anger and understatement) is the wife of a parsimoniously minded clergyman (played with magnificent lack of understanding by Russell Dixon).
They have one son (Tom Bowles in an enlightened yet reluctant mood) whose marriage has deteriorated, as in all Ayckbourn's traditional domestic comedies.
But Susan hits herself with a garden rake and conjures up - all in white - her dream family.
It comprises a tall, athletic gigolo of a loving husband (Robin Herford in a bravura performance), a gallant brother (somewhat sinisterly played by John Hudson) and a young daughter (a cheerful delight from Caroline Webster).
And, in her mind, the two families intermingled in muddled thought.
So we see two marriages: the perfect romantic and blissful fantastic in the area beyond Susan's garden, and the irreparable mundane desperation of the realistic made unbearable by the diabolical aunt full of culinary mistakes, and clairvoyance for the other world of Heather Stoney.
All this takes place in Susan's garden within 48 hours "and beyond" and one must not forget the next-door deaf neighbour's barking dog which contributes considerable extra atmosphere as an off-stage protagonist to the tragic comedy
It ends with the charade, which is what the play is really about, which takes the form of a fully hypocritical paean of plays to Susan for her womanhood and her motherhood, two assembled companies. She has had a daughter in the fantastic and a son in the realistic.
But Susan is left alone, the company dispersing into the shadows.
She faces, terrified, a cigarette in the blazing approach of the headlights of an approaching ambulance coming to take her away.
It is the best thing Ayckbourn has written since
Absurd Person Singular or Absent Friends and has been long awaited."
(Yorkshire Post, 1 June 1985)

Fantasy Replaces Reality - And Turns Hell Into Heaven
"Master of illusion Alan Ayckbourn pulls another theatrical conjuring trick from his extensive repertoire in his latest play, Woman in Mind, which opened last night at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.
No Ayckbourn play is complete without a gimmick or device these days, and this time he creates a double world - one of reality and another of fantasy.
In what must be assumed as the real world, Susan is a bored wife of a dull clergyman, sharing the house with her dowdy sister-in-law.
Even the garden is drab, with its worn lawn and dying bushes.
To escape, Susan brings to life a fantasy garden with acres of well-manicured lawns, surrounded by a swimming pool, tennis court, and lake. Through this world of dreams flit three spirits who provide the love, affluence, and belonging she craves for.
Susan has a world where there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Ayckbourn's script demands a first-class performance from Ursula Jones as Susan, and he gets it.
From her real moods of bitter sarcasm and depression she moves to the fantasy world where she is wide-eyed and opened-mouthed in awe and delight. A supreme performance.
Her husband (Russell Dixon) is a stuffy hair-shirted cleric with too much starch in his dog collar. Susan clearly believes his loving spark was extinguished somewhere between Revelations and Genesis.
Her attempts to bring some semblance of order to her life are disrupted by the manic meddling of her sister-in-law (Heather Stoney), whose culinary skills involve brewing undrinkable coffee and burning Earl Grey tea omelettes.
Even Susan's only child (Tom Bowles) has left the bosom of his family and thrown in his lot with a non-speaking religious sect in Hemel Hempstead.
Her real world is more like hell than heaven.
So she creates an imaginary world where she has a tall, dashing husband (Robin Herford), a flamboyant, champagne-swilling brother (John Hudson), and a pretty "peaches and cream" golly gosh ever-so-sooper daughter.
Her fantasies are triggered off by a bump on the head, but not even the timid macrame-making, accident-prone doctor (Barry McCarthy) finds Susan suitable treatment.
As the pace of the play quickens and the plot thickens, dreams begin to turn to nightmare.
On the surface
Woman in Mind is a roaring good laugh - Mr McCarthy's handkerchief rabbit being a comic gem.
But below that comic veneer seems to lurk all sorts of black and hidden meanings.
Examined line by line, Mr Ayckbourn could have been said to have written the world's first psycho-analytical comedy.
Personally, I believe he has taken all the would-be psychiatrists in the audience right up Susan's garden path and has written
Woman In Mind straight for laughs and done it remarkably successfully."
(Scarborough Evening News, 31 May 1985)

* Both reviews from The Times have issues with the climax of the play, describing it as either incomprehensible or not harsh enough. Given this is not an issue which arises from other reviews of the play, it is worth noting that Woman In Mind actually has one of the harshest / darkest climaxes of any Ayckbourn play. As Susan's mind breaks down, she is unable to distinguish between her real and her imagined worlds, leading to her complete break-down, alone and lost in her mind pleading 'remember me", as the lights of an ambulance fall across her.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.

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