first night

Woman In Mind

Kate Barton reviews one of Ayckbourn's most beloved works with First Theatre Company's Woman In Mind

Woman in Mind by Alan Ayckbourn is a very difficult piece of theatre to pull off effectively. You need sharp direction, clever tech and a phenomenal leading lady. First Theatre Company achieved all of this and more tonight. What I saw tonight has to be one of the best opening nights of a production I’ve ever seen. First time director Andrew Shires has done an amazing job to pull the whole production together in under 5 weeks and at an unusual time due to the Lumiere festival.

Woman in Mind is told from the view point of Susan as she slips further away from sanity and her normal family into an alternate reality, and an alternate family.  But as she sinks deeper and deeper into fantasy and her perfect creations take a dark, sinister turn, she begins to long for what she once had. The play’s climax is a theatrical wonder of acting and tech all fused into one moment.

The set was tastefully presented, and the turfed Assembly Rooms operated as a blank canvas for the garden and various other locations that we were brought to within Susan’s mind. Particular credit has to go to the fantastic work of the Technical Director, Tanya Ararwal for her sharp cues and efficiency. A further mention has to go to Alice Malone’s clever yet intelligent lighting design that conveyed Susan’s changing states of mind, and a particular wonderful change in the second act – but I shan’t spoil the surprise! I would say that the blackouts were slightly too long which did slow down the pace in-between scenes and meant that it was harder to engage at first at the beginning of a scene. 

Shires pulled together a formidable cast of Durham Student Theatre veterans and some prospective fresh talent in his production. The whole cast should be congratulated on their wonderful use of characterization, which is impressive when often the ages they are portraying are well above their own and rarely slipped throughout. I would, however, urge caution to the actors as at times this characterization did slip into melodrama. Although these characters are farcical they also have to be grounded. No matter how enjoyable it is for an audience to see you ‘acting the part’, it is most enjoyable to see you ‘lose yourself’ in a part. These aren’t one-dimensional characters; so don’t play them as such.

The ‘normal’ family scenes were extremely farcical and comedic, although interspersed with real moments of sincerity and hardship. I did find at times the spacing of these scenes could have been more imaginative as the static nature of the blocking slowed down the pace of many of these normal family scenes. Archie Law as the socially awkward Bill captured the audience’s empathy, but I think he can work on creating more character depth and would benefit from working on his diction. That said, the irritable and irrational Muriel was played with consistency by Carrie Gaunt, and the heartfelt acting of Sam Westwood (Gerald), in the second act was a fantastic moment of character development.

The ‘fantasy’ family gelled as a cohesive team, which contrasted beautifully with the ‘normal’ family’s complexity and disjointedness. Matt Dormer and Emilie Aspeling were a superb team and worked very well in tandem, creating the imaginary and perfect world. Aspeling in particular was extremely effective at conveying the changing two sides of the hallucination; seamlessly switching between innocent and sinister. Luke Maskell was a wonderful Andy, the fantasy husband to Susan; whose onstage chemistry with Izzy Mitchell was believable and genuine.

The stand out performance of the night is without a doubt Izzy Mitchell’s portray of the main role, Susan. Mitchell drove the piece forward and managed to convey Susan’s complexity’s with real maturity and conviction. Along with Mitchell, you really felt for and believed in these characters, which made the ending so devastating. The final evocative speech towards the end sent shivers down my spine.

As Woman in Mind is only on for one more day (Wednesday 11th, matinee and evening), I would urge you to go see this production. It’s extremely funny and occasionally poignant and heart wrenching. What else could you want from a night at the theatre?


11 November 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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