Alan Ayckbourn is a prolific and gifted playwright forever associated with the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, where his plays are generally first performed. The ‘Scarborough Shakespeare’ is known for witty and incisive drama, but this play is a bit darker and deeper than much of his work. First performed in Scarborough of course in 1985 Woman in Mind has a cast of eight and the capable Sewell Barn Company have done a superb job in their presentation of this play in the atmospheric setting of their eponymous venue.

The woman is Susan, beautifully portrayed by Mandy Kiley in a touching and well nuanced performance of this challenging role. Susan is married to a vicar, Gerald (Kevin Oelrichs) and has an estranged son Rick (Brad Mercer) who she seldom sees, and a live-in sister in law Muriel (Alexandra Evans). They are each and every one a dysfunctional nightmare. She also has a fantasy family of perfect people, her doting and dashing husband Andy (Lee Johnson), her elegant and sporting brother Tony (Ben Allen) and her gorgeous and loving daughter Lucy (Jasmine Warne) on the cusp of marriage to another perfect young man. Making up the eight strong cast is John Griffin as a last minute Bill, Susan’s doctor.

Bill represents the only consistent strand of reality in this increasingly odd ensemble, until frankly he loses the plot too. The action starts when Susan receives a blow to the head and collapses in her garden, the setting for the whole play. Each scene ends with her passing out once again.

The whole narrative of this play is seen from Susan’s point of view as her blow to the head unleashes a turmoil of real and imagined events. We see these events as Susan herself does, with increasing confusion and uncertainty. This is a hard ask for an audience, but Ayckbourn’s script keeps us focused on Susan’s struggle to balance reality with her preferred picture of her own life.

This is not an easy play to either watch or perform, but it is thought provoking and acutely observed in the interaction of family members failing to deal with someone close who has real mental health problems, and unreal perceptions that are both a comfort and terror to her. It is startling to realise that this play premiered in 1985, and 37 years later we are only just starting to talk about the impact of mental health problems on the lives of a huge proportion of the population. The Sewell Barn cast do great justice to this finely written script, and give us a play that may be difficult but is also a joy to watch.

This script demands an audience that quickly understands a new set of conventions of theatrical performance, as at first it is possibly just confusing to try and distinguish between real and imagined people. But that is also the point of the work, reminding us that we are seeing everything from Susan’s point of view. Director Peter Wood has marshalled his cast into giving a faultless and moving performance. Ayckbourn’s characters are all immediately recognisable and distinctive, although the character of Muriel, the vicar’s widowed sister who lives with them , cooks awful food, and forever tries to reach out to her dead husband stretches our credibility a tad while undoubtedly giving a bit of comic relief.

Tonight, the theatre was full, so I recommend that you get on to as soon as possible to get yourself a seat for this remarkable bit of theatre. The play is on until 29th January with shows at 7.30 and a matinee on the 29th.

© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 21 January 2022