Chichester Festival Theatre – until 15 October 2022
Susan finds herself in mid-life with a dull clerical husband (Nigel Lindsay really enjoying it), obsessed with his dreary parish history pamphlet. His gloomy beige sister lives with them; Muriel (Stephanie Jacob equally relishing every stumping step and grudge). She believes she can conjure up the spirit of her dead husband, and cooks the worst possible food (for an Alan Ayckbourn play this one is short on big laughs, but the good ones are about her omelettes and coffee). Their son has run off to join a cult in Hemel Hempstead.
But after she steps on a rake, Susan’s concussion takes the form of hallucinating another family life: a grand estate with tennis courts, pool, sunset lake and money. The alternative husband is adoring, light-hearted, cooks fabulous lunches with homemade mayonnaise; there’s a posh laughing brother and a confiding, happy lively daughter Lucy, and in this life Susan is an acclaimed writer of historical fiction. It all feels like a Sunday supplement portrait, and most likely is born of such. Not least in its sense of English class division: the media-aggravated belief that somewhere out of reach lie lives not only more glamorous but happier.
The hallucinated figures are as real to us as to her, wandering in and out, and conversations weave with her real life with puzzling oddity. Only the local GP (a wonderfully bumbling Matthew Cottle) is half-aware of them. In the livelier second half Susan’s mania intensifies and the situation escalates into some spectacular misdeeds (in real life) and a fabulous nightmare wedding-cum-race meeting delusion (in her head). The dream’s disjointed structure, I have to say, felt eerily familiar if you are like me prone to long confused narrative dreams.
It is easy to see why director Anna Mackmin and Chichester thought it a good wheeze to revive this 1984 play: mental health is trending, as is the anxiety that the menopause might drive some women off their heads. And you can’t fault the acting, especially from Jenna Russell’s Susan at its core, and where there is comedy the cast find it. The confrontation between the judgmental, alienated son and Susan is very strong indeed, set against the marshmallow-sweetness of the imaginary daughter. Ahhh, imaginary children…
But for all its Chichester polish the play feels oddly dated. We don’t relish retrospectives a mere 30+ years ago. Partly I suppose the disconnection (it was a cool un-Ayckbournish house on last-preview) is because a woman this desperately bored with her life would now be able to blog, Instagram and communicate more freely with outside friends on email. Maybe, indeed, that is the 21c version of hallucinating a better parallel life.
Box office cft.org.uk to 15 October