Did you ever have an imaginary friend when you were young? Maybe it was someone with whom you could talk, play and invent games? Perhaps, you shared confidences together in parallel with – or perhaps in denial of – the more boring reality around you?
Even as a child, you might have tried hard to keep that imaginary person a secret. As an adult lacking company, the imaginary might – over time – have become more interesting than the affluent but dull rural or suburban reality.
That is only one of many different interpretations that can be drawn from Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Woman In Mind’, a play first performed in Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1985.
So, what are we to make of Susan (Emily Dennett) in the lead role? Her ‘imaginary friends’ begin to protrude more and more into ordinary ‘real’ domestic and social life. Her actual partner Gerald (Dan Dryer) is a dull, vicar-like, collator of 600 years of local village history. Gerald’s live-in sister, Muriel (Rosy Armitage), comes across as self-centred and – to make matters worse – she’s a terrible cook. Dr Bill Windsor (David Peaty) seems rather overkeen on his medical visits, especially if he can get close-up to Susan.
The fairly comfortable low-level professional classes stand in stark contrast to Susan’s real but absent son, Rick (San Masters). He has just quit a cult down south. But he’s already heading off with a new wife to seek his future as an odd-job man in, er, Thailand. Let’s see how long that lasts!
However, in Susan’s imaginary world, there is Andy (Barry Syder) – the kind and thoughtful man who is an excellent chef and represents everything that Gerald, her real husband, is not. Then, we have Susan’s imaginary young brother, Tony (Giles Newlyn-Bowmer) who is devoted and mischievous. The cast is completed by Lucy (Gala Orbson), Susan’s beautiful but unreal daughter.
At times, it’s tricky to follow who’s real and who’s imagined. But there’s a serious note to this strange world where the make-believe figures seem as real – and rather more exciting – than the flesh and blood family.
Wick Theatre company in Southwick certainly don’t put on middle-of-the-road crowd pleasers! So unpacking what is real, what is imaginary and what is a bit of both isn’t always easy.
In putting on this play the director and team poked into the realms of mental illness, head injuries and memory loss, bringing a contemporary angle to the dramatic material Ayckbourn offered us in the 80s. Hence, the confusions and puzzles of the unreliable witnesses sometimes play havoc and sometimes throw light on important insights. At other times, the real players simply chose to ignore or dismiss such behaviour.
This tricky real/unreal play is accomplished by Mike Wells (director) and Peter Joyce (stage manager) with Martin Oakley and Susanne Crosby presenting an excellent stage design and lighting operation in tune with the themes of the play. Challenging, stimulating and thoughtful.
So what happens when what happens is in doubt?
Photos by Sam Taylor