FringeReview UK 2017
Tony Bannister directs Alan Ayckbourn’s very personal 1985 Woman in Mind for Lewes Little Theatre production, the cast headed by Laura Fausner in the title role. David Moon’s superb design encompasses a garden that with Geoff Parker’s projection screens alters backdrop from tight suburbia to country house, and not only one version of the latter. Paul Carpenter’s lighting manages the rest. Till May 20th.
Alan Ayckbourn’s very personal 1985 Woman in Mind is the latest in an often ambitious speciality of this theatre – including a specially constructed pool for Man of the Moment. Tony Bannister directs this latest Lewes Little Theatre production, the cast headed by Laura Fausner in the title role. LLT’s sets are – as the above pool suggests – famous. David Moon’s superb design encompasses a garden that with Geoff Parker’s projection screens alters backdrop from tight suburbia to country house, and not only one version of the latter. ‘I’m in the herb garden’ suggests just one cue and Paul Carpenter’s lighting manages the rest.
There are fewer slapstick moments and brilliant set-pieces in what for many is Ayckbourn’s finest, certainly most intimate play. Susan whose mind we’re in, is being gently tended by a man talking elegant gibberish: ‘December bee’ for instance is nonsense. It’s also the same phrase she herself repeats at the end. The tender, David Nicholles’ Bill is a non-regular doctor from the practice; she’s taken a blow from a garden rake. She wants to cancel the ambulance. As Bill forbids this her family come up and say they’ll happily dispatch it: Chris Parke’s ideally loving husband Andy, brilliant daughter Lucy (Jessica Smith) and Susan’s much younger tennis-putting brother Tony – Christyan James’ bobbing badinage about rakes and progress in the kitchen; Andy’s a superb cook.
All a great pity since they don’t exist: their opposites do. Gerald, Susan’s neglectful literal-minded vicar husband (Michael Piller, in superb form) soon admonishes Susan who asks why they’ve not had sex in years. Surely she’s over all that? he rejoinders. He’s more interested in completing 600 years of Parish History from 1386.
To add injury to insult, his live-in widowed sister Muriel (Sue Shephard) makes appalling company and worse omelettes with Early Grey tea instead of herbs (which Susan’s mind recycles above as with much else). It drives even attentive Bill off; and there’s coffee made like instant from ground. It’s not just Susan suffering hallucinations. Muriel, deeply unsympathetic, is convinced she’s talking to the sprit of her dead husband. James Meickle’s Rick – Susan’s and Gerald’s only child – has foresworn communication with parents, joining a cult – such groups often made up of ex-Catholics, Plymouth Brethren and the rest; the pattern fits. It’s a house visited by failed religion.
It’s Rick’s unannounced appearance prompting Susan’s next collapse that begins a deadly seepage. Bill, who confesses his love at a crucial point is interrupted Susan says by Lucy. Humouring Susan, he prods blindly for a far younger Lucy only to find the phantom family see him very well, then seize him too. By the same token Susan’s isolation in her so-called real dysfunctional family deteriorates. Meickle’s Rick is a study in frozen adolescence: he finds Gerald more sympathetic. Rick’s priggish refusal to bring his shock new wife stings Susan because, Rick alleges, she tries to make friends with his girlfriends. There are worse things. ‘It’s not all your fault’ Gerald obliviously concedes. Ayckbourn’s message suggests failed religion causes spirit-searchings and cults; the fault is Gerald’s desiccated emptiness. Piller’s curmudgeonly stoop encapsulates Gerald as a clucking pelican, literally a towering performance.
The climax is catastrophic and hilarious first because of what Susan does. Second, because the fantasy world Susan tries to banish starts blurring with the real one as Susan’s mind both collapses and sees her own family with devastating clarity – whilst at the same time melding a daughter’s wedding with appearances from the ‘real’ family, Gerald as an archbishop and a wedding day turned brides’ race in Ascot. What befalls afterwards, and to Gerald’s work, the great line phantom-scrawled on the ceiling ‘knickers off Muriel’ which Muriel takes as a visitation – will have to be seen.
Smith and James as two of the ideal family effortlessly diffuse their warm privilege. Some have made their roles more dangerous, as when they decide to throw ‘poacher’ Bill into the lake. Nicholles’ eloquently hapless Bill – morphing into a tout at the end – well conveys a man acutely aware: of his lack of charisma, whose wife is cheating with another doctor, and his feelings for Susan. Shephard’s Muriel is difficult not to caricature. She manages not to guy the part, though the glint of humanity that can be there proves elusive.
Fausner’s bright sheen proves ideal with her ideal family. The volume’s turned up, teeth whiten at least metaphorically. She commands and speaks out front and centre to a fault – Bannister’s deliberate pace works for much of this dream play, though little use is made of that sweet spot, upstage centre. Fausner’s professionalism means we can relax and enjoy her interpretative powers. What’s perhaps lacking till right at the end is contrast with Susan’s sunlit fantasy: the shadows lengthening when Susan endures her real family, if that’s what they can be called.
‘December bee’ though returns us to Ayckbourn’s violinist father and music as a motif. It’s the heart-breaking ‘Remember me’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – Dido’s Lament scored here in an ecstasy of distraction. Fausner rises to this, though downstage centre leaves us less ambience than might have been. Despite the occasional lack of shadows, there’s much to bask in and it’s more than worth seeing this production if you don’t know the play, or refreshing your memory if you do.