An uneven, lush, green lawn lies upon the stage of the Vaudeville theatre. It is a simple, unadorned set but it provides the backdrop to an increasingly surreal catalogue of events which happen to Susan, whose garden this is.
From the moment Alan Ayckbourn’s play opens, it is clear that something is amiss. A woman lies sprawled on the lawn and a doctor is speaking to her in what seems like gibberish. This is our introduction to Janie Dee’s Susan, who has stepped on a rake and smacked her head, coming round to the sight of Bill, the neighbourhood doctor who has been summoned by Susan’s husband.
And there is her husband; a tall, dashing man clad in tennis whites whose adoration for his wife is clear as he rushes to her side, concerned for her well-being. Their picture-perfect daughter is not far behind, her blond hair bouncing as she bounds through the garden on her way to play tennis with Susan’s fun-loving brother, but not before giving her mother a hug.
However, soon it becomes clear that Susan – dressed in a dull, light-brown dress – is not really a part of this squeaky clean, whiter-than-white family that is half Mills & Boon, half Famous Five. But she wishes she was. Instead, Susan’s reality is a bland, monotonous vicar for a husband, a drab sister-in-law she despises and a son who no longer speaks to her.
It is the contrast between these two lives – one real, one imagined – that provides both the comedy and the poignancy of Ayckbourn’s play. The success of the whole scenario hangs on Dee, who imbues Susan with a brooding strength, a dry wit and a girlish gaiety that fights daily to survive in the face of her husband and sister-in-law’s overwhelming dullness. Susan is a woman who wanted more from life, but made the decision to put her all into being a wife and mother, only to be repaid with silence, neglect and blame. In showing us the dreams of her imagination, Ayckbourn reveals more about Susan’s heartfelt, desperate desires than her family will ever know.
The ingenuity of the play is how the two worlds are intertwined into one narrative. At first they remain separate, but as the play progresses, Susan’s fantasy family increasingly intrudes upon her reality, to the extent that Susan can seemingly no longer control what takes place in her head.
While much of the action involving the other characters takes place off stage, Susan always remains in her garden, which becomes a metaphor for her mind, confused by the mix of real and imagined. As the play reaches its climax, the two worlds merge entirely, leaving Susan to flounder in a twisted, almost grotesque fantasy world of her mind’s creation, from which she cannot escape.