ANGIE Millard has directed myriad plays but “seemed to have avoided” Alan Ayckbourn…until now.
“The present climate of isolation and mental health issues led me to Woman In Mind, which is a perfect choice for this time,” she says, ahead of her York Settlement Community Players production opening on Saturday in the York Theatre Royal Studio.
One of 87 full-length works by the Scarborough playwright, 1985’s Woman In Mind’s portrait of a woman in the verge finds housewife Susan stuck, unfulfilled and neglected in her humdrum marriage.
As played by Victoria Delaney, who remains on stage throughout, Susan’s growing disillusionment with everyday life is brought to a head when she steps on a garden rake and is knocked unconscious.
Whereupon her minor concussion and hallucinations combine to surround Susan with the ideal fantasy family, handsomely dressed in tennis whites as they sip champagne. However, when her real and imaginary worlds collide, those fantasies take on a nightmarish life of their own in Ayckbourn’s hotbed of humour and pathos.
“You can see Ayckbourn’s plays over and over again and still see something new in them each time; they’re so rich in detail,” says Angie. “I love Woman In Mind, and I’m working with very talented and creative people who make every rehearsal a joy, though the problem we’ve faced is the limited amount of time we’ve had to rehearse.
“We’ve been doing just three hours on Sundays, two hours on Mondays and Wednesdays, with the Mondays for intensive sessions for the two-hander scenes, followed by a week in tech.
“You need the time to explore the lines, to find the humour, to bring a light touch to it, as it’s that subtle, offhand way that Ayckbourn has in his writing.”
Explaining her reasoning behind selecting Woman In Mind, Angie says: “Because of Susan. I feel there are so few plays that feature a woman like this. Hedda Gabler and that’s it.
“That’s important now in a society where people are having mental health problems – and Susan has massive mental health problems. The pandemic has also thrown up an increased awareness of isolation and of not being happy in a relationship, which has been exacerbated in the lockdowns.”
Angie notes how Susan’s husband Gerald, busy writing his magnus opus on the history of the parish, “doesn’t know how to deal with Susan”. “Men in Ayckbourn’s plays rarely do. It’s a position they take where, over the years, they slide away from their responsibilities in relationships or in their workplace, and that’s rarely something women get to do,” she says.
“But this is where Ayckbourn is really clever, because you also see Susan for who she is. You ask yourself, ‘why did she marry him?’. When Gerald asks, ‘what did I do wrong?’, she says, ‘’Married me’.
“Yes, he’s let her down, he’s a disappointment, but marriages are about a contract and a bargain. It’s about acceptance.”
Putting Susan’s character on the psychiatrist’s couch, Angie says: “Most people who end up unwell mentally have an addiction, though with Susan, I can’t attribute an addiction to her, except an addiction to perfection.
“If you’re classically depressed, it’s because the world doesn’t see you as you see yourself, but you have to get over that and not see yourself as so important.”
Victoria Delaney will be joined in Millard’s cast by company stalwarts Chris Pomfrett, Paul Toy, Helen Wilson and Paul French and newcomers Frankie-Jo Anderson, Neil Vincent and Amy Hall in Settlement Players’ first Theatre Royal production since Chekhov’s The Seagull in pre-Covid March 2020.
“This is the first role I’ve done since Covid started,” says Victoria. “My last one was in a play I wrote myself, Mad Alice, in October 2019, and my plan at the time was to start my own company, do a Yorkshire tour and then maybe take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, but then the pandemic happened and it just wasn’t possible. I’ll wait for things to settle down and then I can return to that plan or more writing.
“So, when I saw the casting call-out for Woman In Mind, I jumped at it. I did my research and requested to audition for two roles, Susan and Muriel, as I love comedy and I would have loved to play Muriel too, but what a peach of a part Susan is.”
Victoria initially took a break from her professional acting career after her divorce to focus on being a single mum with an autistic son – who will turn 20 in the summer – and she now works remotely from home giving legal advice on Zoom to families with special educational needs up to the age of 25.
Her acting and writing come into play when the opportunity arises. “But in my work, I do also sometimes have to think creatively about how the law might get over a problem,” she says.
Rehearsing for an Ayckbourn play has been such a stimulating challenge. “It’s a comedy but it’s a dark comedy, which means I can show lots of sides to Susan. There are moments where I can play the comedy; moments where she’s really vulnerable, or indignant, or annoyed,” says Victoria.
“There’s just so much to her character, and because I never leave the stage, I get to interact with so many characters. I’m going to really miss her because she takes you over. I’ve been called for every rehearsal because Susan is in every scene, and as I have to go through so many emotions, I then need to let those emotions , that adrenaline, seep away.”
To learn all those lines, “I’ve been walking around the village, doing laps at 6am, listening to the play,” says Victoria, who lives in Wheldrake.
She finds liberation in playing a character of such emotional contrasts. “I’ll say things on stage that I would never say myself. Things that I would consider rude. I’d have too many filters to go through to say them!” she says.
“But the absolute drug of acting is to be able to show the audience all these emotions, this sadness, and when you feel them connect with you, I love that connection.
“I’ve meet lot of actors that have a certain shyness about them in their own lives. I mask it, but I have a shy side, and when people say, ‘but you go out on stage’, I say, ‘yes, but I’m playing someone else and I love doing that’.”
As chance would have it, when facing such a demanding week ahead, “luckily the performances are over half-term”, says Victoria, breathing a little more easily at the prospect.
York Settlement Community Players in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind, York Theatre Royal Studio, Saturday until February 26, except February 20; 7.45pm plus 2.45pm, February 26. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.