Review | Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre: 'Well worth a visit'

AS THE Festival season moves to its end in Chichester, the latest offering is what may be Alan Ayckbourn’s blackest piece – Woman In Mind.
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This dark comedy tells the story of Susan, caught in a world of loveless relationships – her husband; her son; her sister-in-law – and how a knock to the head from a recalcitrant garden-rake sets in motion a series of encounters, both real and imaginary, that emphasise to her the loss of control over her own life that her circumstances have created.

I’m not a fan of superlatives in a review – painting a truthful picture demands balance – but I fear a few may appear in the coming sentences.

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Susan’s husband, Gerald, a vicar from what appears to be a lower-class of family and in many ways as bored of the marriage as Susan but unwilling to acknowledge and admit it, is a fine performance from Nigel Lindsay. As his sister, the argumentative culinary disaster that is Muriel, Stephanie Jacob could easily steal the show. These two are everything in Susan’s life so no wonder that the imaginary family that the knock to the head causes her to create are polar opposites; refined, caring, supportive.

Marc Elliott (Andy) & Jenna Russell (Susan) in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan PerssonMarc Elliott (Andy) & Jenna Russell (Susan) in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
Marc Elliott (Andy) & Jenna Russell (Susan) in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
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Because of their fantastic nature the parts, as written, are two-dimensional perfection; exactly what Susan wants and needs to make her life wonderful. Being as these people are far-removed from reality, appreciative hats must be doffed to Marc Elliott, Orlando James and Flora Higgins for filling them out and adding, even at their jolliest, an overwhelming sense of threat.

As her son, Rick, Will Attenborough plots a well-thought-through course through the difficult emotional expectations of the character and as the one true example of affection in Susan’s life, Matthew Cottle’s bumbling doctor is pure joy.

Towering over it all, the wonderful Jenna Russell is Susan, balanced between the loveless reality and the impossible fantasy, unable to embrace either, unable to escape either. This is a performance to cherish; hugely comic, hugely tragic.

Orlando James, Jenna Russell, Marc Elliott & Flora Higgins in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan PerssonOrlando James, Jenna Russell, Marc Elliott & Flora Higgins in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
Orlando James, Jenna Russell, Marc Elliott & Flora Higgins in Woman in Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
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Ayckbourn’s script is tight, funny and emotionally-wrenching; the last sight of Russell, wet, bedraggled and sobbing her misery out as the light fades slowly around her will long stay in the memory.

Well worth a visit.

Until October 15.

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