An explosive picture of the mind

The cast of Woman in Mind. (s)
The cast of Woman in Mind. (s)

The Garrick’s latest offering drew up an alarming and balanced picture of mental illness.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind is the tale of housewife Susan, neglected by her husband, patronised by her sister-in-law and estranged from her son.

To escape her loneliness, she creates an imaginary life with a doting family from a privileged background; but an absurd series of events ensues, however, when reality and fantasy begin to blur.

Fiona McInerney gave a sympathetic and rich performance as Susan, free from stereotyping. Spilling from sprightly to sarcastic and from breezy to fractured, the actress demonstrated a breadth of skill to depict a dammed identity bursting at the gates.

Ayckbourn’s 32nd play, Woman in Mind was written in the 1980s during Thatcher’s age of individualism.

Today, in a time of governmental cuts and oversubscriptions to mental health services, this startling portrayal is no less relevant.

In a world of selfies and rapid cultural and technological advances allowing us to be here, there and everywhere at once - creating additional social expectations to be everything to everyone - this picture of a woman suffering an identity crisis has a strong emotional pull.

The circumstances may be different - she is a housewife marooned from her son and husband with little to occupy her mind - but her’s is still an identity neutralised by the demands and expectations of those around her.

McInerney laid on thickly the poetic cheeriness of her imaginary family, as did Jim Staton, Paul Thompson and Shannon Grogan as her fantasy husband, brother and daughter.

This mythologised the elite and the privileged, all the more resonating for the fact that, in today’s world, the gap between the social classes is widening.

And it added a saccharine veneer to Susan’s imaginary world, masking the callousness of its inhabitants simmering below. Part of the tragedy of the play, of course, is that this sickly-sweet world is more damaging to Susan than comforting.

The actress expertly sharpened the housewife’s sardonic wit - an ironic fortress somewhat blunting a rage fired by loneliness - giving a harsher edge to her quips about her family’s inadequacies.

In this way, it revealed the sometimes darker side of mental illness for a more balanced view: the cruelty sufferers at times lay upon their loved ones in expression of pain.

Martin Chadwick softened the character of Gerald, Susan’s real husband. Less smug than traditionally depicted, Chadwick created a more sympathetic character - bumbling and anxious despite his pride - with a tendency to bury his head in the sand.

Kudos for strong support must go to the rest of the cast, including Eleanor Jolley as sister-in-law Muriel, Wayne Brankin as son Rick and director Alan Hargreaves, who lent his acting skills as doctor Bill Windsor.

Applause must also go to the production team, especially Martin Chadwick in set design for superbly recreating the supposed halcyon setting of a rural, upper-class England.

Lighting was used effectively by Richard I’Anson and The ACE Centre staff to reflect the mental state of Susan. The stage was bathed in bright yellow to depict the sunny disposition of her imaginary family; while tinges of grey accentuated the bleak reality of Susan’s life - Lynne Atkinson and Anne Dunlop matched this with costumes.

This haunting depiction of the failure to deal effectively with mental illness continues to hold relevance to today’s world where, despite society’s better understanding of the mind, waiting lists for services are rapidly growing. The Garrick offered superb performances, especially from McInerney, which reached the depths needed to capture the explosive results of a personality dulled and diluted for far too long.

Final performances will take place tonight and tomorrow at The ACE Centre, Cross Street, Nelson, starting at 7-30pm.

Tickets are available from the venue’s box office on 01282 661080 (10am to 4pm), priced at £10 each or £7.50 for students.

Season tickets for the remaining three plays are available on 07788 554939.

For further information please visit www.thegarrick.org