Woman In Mind: December Bee…? (2009)This article was first published in Alan Ayckbourn's 2009 West End production of Woman In Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre.
In 1986, Alan Ayckbourn announced he was to take a sabbatical from Scarborough to become a visiting director at the National Theatre in London.
It would become a watershed in his career and he would return from London with far more critical respect as a writer and director than when he left Scarborough.
His final play before he left the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was Woman In Mind. It was itself an unlikely departure for the playwright and was greeted by a mixed, even occasionally bewildered response.
Yet its transfer to London and subsequent production led to it being acclaimed as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most powerful plays. To this day it stands as a turning point in Alan’s writing career and the wider perception of his work.
Writing The Play
Woman In Mind is, according to Alan Ayckbourn’s biographer Paul Allen, the most autobiographical of his plays. Alan is generally quick to deny this, but there is no doubt it is a very personal play.
It was written in April 1985 and inspired by Alan’s desire to write a play which was essentially cinematic in approach without cutting away from the main character or cumbersome scene changes. Its subjective view-point – a rarity in Alan’s plays – was also indirectly inspired by the film Dead On Arrival, which notably is a first-person story in which the final revelation is the narrator is dead (apologies to anyone who has not seen the film!).
He had also been reading Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a seminal book exploring how the brain functions and what can happen when it goes wrong. Although, as Alan has emphasised, he did not do any actual medical research into the lead character Susan’s condition, instead drawing it from observation and experience.
It is also a play which tackles as the critic Michael Billington noted, organised religion and its possible shortcomings in contemporary society. This would be the first of several acclaimed plays to look at wider issues in the 1980s such as the media in Man Of The Moment, business and morality in A Small Family Business and the nature of the creative artist in Henceforward….
The play was initially written with a man in mind, but Alan quickly changed this to a woman, feeling that it was slightly easier to tell the story with a female voice and that a woman would probably be a more sympathetic character.
At the time, Alan was still writing to the latest possible deadline (generally the day before rehearsals began) and was surprised that for the first time in his life, he had finished the play a week earlier than anticipated. He wrote to his agent that he was quite excited by the direction it had taken, but his agent was not as convinced audiences would lap up such a demanding play. Here, as many times before and since, Alan firmly believed there was nothing wrong in making demands of an audience or presenting a play which might generate very different responses depending on the experiences of the audience. It is a play Alan noted where: “there are always going to be those who find the tragedy outweighs the comedy and vice versa. And, depending on the night of the week, this balance will alter quite drastically.”
That said, when the play came to be advertised, the prospective audience was left very much in the dark as to what it was about, the publicity having gone out before Alan had begun writing, leading to an extraordinary brochure note:
At the time of going to press a high wall of secrecy surrounds this project. Some have the theory that the reason for this is to protect such highly original comic material from the risk of plagiarism. Others, more cynical, suggest that it could be due to the fact that the author hasn't started on it yet and is anxious not to commit himself.
Woman In Mind opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in May 1985 featuring company stalwart Russell Dixon as Susan’s husband Gerald, Ursula Jones as Susan and introducing Barry McCarthy as Bill; he would become a fixture of the company and is in some regards a quintessential Ayckbourn actor. The run was practically full to capacity, yet the critics were divided over the play.
Whilst several felt this was a brave move into new territory for the playwright, there was some concern that Alan was moving into far darker territory than he was generally associated with. Considering the plays which followed, they had no idea how dark his plays would turn! Ursula Jones’ performance received mixed reviews but whether this was due to issues with the character of Susan or the actress herself is unclear, such was the demanding nature of the role.
This did not deter the producer Michael Codron who was determined to take the play into London; his and Alan’s only problem was who to cast as Susan?
A number of high profile names were considered but no-one stuck until Alan saw the television adaptation of his play Absent Friends in which Julia McKenzie played the lead role of Diana. Alan thought she was “really superb” and he urged Codron to seriously consider her. Ironically, prior to this both Codron and Alan had decided the actress – who had previously appeared in the West End productions of The Norman Conquests and Ten Times Table – was probably unsuitable for the role. It was also a risky choice. Julia McKenzie was largely known as a musical theatre actress and to hand over this pivotal role to her was taking quite a gamble. Susan is the focal point of Woman In Mind and never leaves the stage; it is an extremely emotional and physically challenging role. The decision to cast her, however, turned out to be inspired.
Despite these misgivings, some of which even the actress carried, the play opened at the Vaudeville Theatre in London in September 1986 and was greeted with a very different set of reviews. The critics agreed the play had matured between Scarborough and London and that it seemed better suited to the proscenium arch – something Alan disagrees with believing the London production became too complex. Julia McKenzie was gifted with stunning reviews and would win the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress. To this day the role of Susan is most associated with her. The production would also introduce Alan to the designer Roger Glossop, the first of many productions they would work on together and which continues to this day with his design for the set for the 2008 Scarborough revival and its transfer to London in 2009.
In 1988, the Manhattan Theatre Club produced the play in New York where Alan had previously had mixed fortunes. Stockard Channing – better known as Rizzo in the film Grease and more recently for her award-winning role as President Bartlet’s wife, Abigail, in the TV series The West Wing – played Susan. Like Julia McKenzie before her, she won over the critics with a powerful performance for which she won the Drama Desk Best Actress award. It remains one of the rare occasions when an Ayckbourn play has transferred successfully to New York with an American cast.
The success of Woman In Mind in London could not have come at a better time. Within the next few months Alan was to win great acclaim for his award-winning production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge and his latest play, A Small Family Business, both produced at the National Theatre. The darker themes of Woman In Mind carried through to A Small Family Business and beyond as Alan’s next play Henceforward… moved into even darker territory. All of these led to critics re-evaluating Ayckbourn, noting both his gifts as a director and also that there was far more depth to his playwriting than many had previously given him credit for.
The legacy of Woman In Mind was also a powerful one. The audience reaction to the piece in London went above and beyond anyone’s expectations with both Alan and Julia receiving correspondence from people who had experienced similar traumatic events in their lives and empathised with what Julia was portraying on stage. For both actor and playwright, it must have been a sobering realisation of the ordeal some women were going through in their lives. That is not to say the laughter was not there too and although both men and women enjoyed the play, Alan noted “I think the women in the audience stop laughing long before the men.”
Julia McKenzie would return to the role of Susan in 2000 when it was adapted for BBC Radio 3, reuniting her with Martin Jarvis as Gerald. This was a remarkably successful adaptation largely because Susan’s imaginary world was not constrained by the stage, but was left to the audience’s own imaginations.
Despite the challenges the play presents, it has been popular ever since 1985 and is frequently staged. Alan has wanted to revive it with Janie Dee in the lead role for several years – apparently he has been in competition with Sir Peter Hall in this wish!
It is not hard to see why 24 years on it is still possible to see what a ground-breaking play it was and how much it still resonates with audiences today.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.