The theatre chronicler of the British middle class, Alan Ayckbourn, has long been London’s answer to our David Williamson. It’s odd that the Sydney Theatre Company is staging his now dated 1985 hit Woman In Mind, but it does have a star role for the nicely affable Noni Hazlehurst.
She plays Susan, a 40-something woman starved of affection from her vicar husband and distant son. After a bang on the head from a garden rake, she begins to hallucinate about her ideal husband and family.
Being English, her dream world is all very aristocratic, a tally-ho fantasy of a rambling country estate with hunting and a spiffingly cheerful family, led by the handsome John Adam. But even in England nowadays, this sort of upper class twaddle would be dated.
Director Gale Edwards exaggerates it even more for some broad colonial laughter, as the fantasy family creeps into Susan’s small back garden and brings some sunshine to her unhappy life.
Her frigid husband (David Downer), his loveless sister (the wonderfully acidic Deborah Kennedy), her brutal son (Richard Pyros) and her clumsy doctor (Andrew McFarlane) all fail of course to see her fantasy family at the bottom of the garden.
Ayckbourn is a master craftsman of these sorts of theatrical illusions, gently challenging the audience but still delivering a sturdy comedy on the absurdities of a suburban life.
Woman In Mind though has a darker shadow as Susan’s fantasies unfold into something less comic, more surreal, and the frustrations of her loveless life push her to madness.
This tragic underbelly to Ayckbourn’s comedy is not well detailed in Edwards’s heavy-handed production.
Mad people, with the exception perhaps of King Lear, are usually fairly boring on stage. They’re impervious to the real world we share, they’re impenetrable, more tediously egocentric than even one’s sane acquaintances. This play, however, takes us inside Susan’s voyage.
We see the careless domestic brutalities which drive Susan to fantasies. We see the fantasies and then how they swirl into paranoiac confusion. Edwards turns this last stage into an over-designed romp.
As for Noni Hazlehurst, she portrays the sadness and thwarted life of Susan but, despite the opportunities from Ayckbourn, little of the real struggle and agony of one on the edge of sanity.
The play steers us through both the laughter and the tragic; the production doesn’t seem to care which way we go.
Woman In Mind is at the Opera House Drama Theatre until 25 November.