Woman in Mind review: ‘brought to life by a standout cast’

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Alan Ayckbourn’s deliciously dark family tragi-comedy is brought to life by a standout cast in Andrew Shires’ production of Woman in Mind. On his first directorial outing Shires has managed to balance this delicately wrought play, switching effortlessly between laugh out-loud comedy and intense emotional crisis.

This is a play, however, which ultimately lives and dies by the quality of the eponymous ‘Woman’. Izzy Mitchell, who was never absent from the stage in her role as Susan, exuded a total confidence which made you forget that you were in fact watching a student portray midlife woes. The audience views the action through Susan’s eyes, as after a bump to the head this middle-aged housewife ricochets between her real-life problematic family and their fantastical, idealised counterparts.

Mitchell anchored the performance wonderfully, and alongside Archie Law as Bill provided a charming and emotionally poignant centre to the swirling tempest of family members around them. Law, as the bumbling, clumsy Bill, managed the tricky task of eking out every last bit of laughter from his punchlines, yet also holding back from slapstick caricature.

In terms of staging, distinguishing between the real and the imagined was the most prominent task in the hands of the creative team. In her modest garden, decorated only with the odd gnome or hazardous turtle, Susan’s worlds were portrayed chiefly through shifting lighting. These changes – the work of lighting designer Alice Malone – were effective in drawing those boundaries, with the dream world’s vivid colours taking on an almost cartoonish quality. In the opening scenes, replete with copious champagne, tennis rackets and plummy accents, the hazy lighting was reminiscent of an episode of Made in Chelsea. This is by no means a critique! The heightened, stagey quality of the dream scenes were funny but they also offered an insightful on class-consciousness, motherhood, marriage, and above all our own expectations. These problems linger just below the surface throughout until they come to a crippling climax in the final moments of the play.

Shires paced the performance terrifically, with the tension intensifying in all the right places. The storyline creeps slowly towards malevolence, and the actors kept the audience hooked with just the right amount of threat in their voices to hint at what was to come but not to give away too much. The entire performance came off remarkably smoothly and professionally, thanks to the efforts of the production and tech teams.

Playing siblings Gerald and Muriel, Sam Westwood and displayed excellent comic timing and truly wonderful facial expressions. Westwood inhabited the role of the sanctimonious Gerald, the priest obsessed with his history of the parish. There was little sign of first night nerves as they both trotted through their lines, effortlessly building to wonderful punchlines in the final scene.

Ultimately, I think it is the comedy which truly shines in this production, to the detriment of the drama. A jovial audience perhaps didn’t react as planned to lines which should have been intimidating, but instead provoked laughter. As the plot advances, those characters who would be menacing don’t always hit the mark. Despite some excellent performances, the lasting memory of the play will, I think, be a memorable line about Muriel’s knickers, rather than the more profound dramatic arc of Susan’s mental health.

This production has many merits, perhaps above all by simply tackling a play which 1TC should be performing. Woman in Mind isn’t particularly well known, yet it balances intellectual ambition with a great sense of humour. Shires makes this 80s play work for a contemporary, student production and for that he should be congratulated.

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