Judy and Johnny are “terribly”, “appallingly” happy in their 1950s house, complete with bright yellow kitchen, jazzy wallpaper and vintage fridge. In her swirling, candy-striped skirt and tightly coiffured hair, Judy skips lightly around the kitchen, dutifully taking the top off Johnny’s breakfast egg and inviting him to choose between home-made marmalade and home-made lemon curd on his breakfast toast. It feels like we are watching a 1950s advert for washing powder – everything is dazzlingly bright and cartoon-like. Then, after sending Johnny off to work with a chaste wifely kiss, Judy sits at the kitchen table and …gets out a laptop. With this single dissonant act, our assumptions are shattered and the scene is set for Laura Wade’s satirical examination of feminism, relationships and nostalgia.
It transpires that an offer of voluntary redundancy from Judy’s high-powered job has triggered a decision to escalate the couples’ retro hobby into the full-blown adoption of a 1950s lifestyle, with Johnny as Breadwinner and Judy as Housewife. In a post-interval flashback, we see Judy enthusiastically selling the idea to Johnny as an opportunity to focus more time and energy on their relationship, to escape from the acquisitive pressures of consumerism and to lead a simpler, more economical life in a refreshingly clean house. When Johnny wonders if the proposed arrangement arrangement might not be considered a little sexist, she replies “No, it’s a choice.”
This is a very cute premise and enables Wade, in this cleverly constructed play, to explore interpretations of feminism, the impact of inequality on relationships, and (in a very Brexit-relevant theme) the viability of nostalgia as a response to a contemporary sense of powerlessness.
The principal challenge to the couple’s arrangement comes from Judy’s mother, Sylvia. A card-carrying feminist who brought her daughter up in a women’s commune, Sylvia can barely contain her horror at what she sees as Judy’s self-imposed subjugation. While Judy defends her feminist credentials in terms of choice, Sylvia sees only a wasted life and a wilful relinquishment of hard-fought-for equality. It is Sylvia also who provides (in a brilliant extended monologue) the most devastating dismissal of her daughter’s nostalgic fantasy (“The ‘50s didn’t even look like this in the ‘50s”).
While these external critiques are powerful, and amusingly presented, they are also fairly familiar and predictable. More interesting is the way that cracks gradually appear in the foundation of the couple’s “gingham paradise”. In particular, while Johnny fully expects to feel “like a pig in shit” – with a devoted wife and the ability to fulfil his manly role as The Provider – he finds instead that his confidence is eroding, his performance at work deteriorating and he can find nothing to say to the wife who he feels has been “vacuumed out”. We also begin to witness a brittleness in Judy’s determined cheeriness and to view her commitment to the arrangement as a form of desperation rather than (as she claims) liberation.
Tamara Harvey’s production features exceptionally strong performances from the three central characters: Katherine Parkinson (as Judy), Susan Brown (as Sylvia) and Richard Harrington (as Johnny). The two-storey open-fronted set design (by Anna Fleischle) has a perfect, slightly unreal dolls-house feel and transforms from quirkily retro into full-blown 1950s in one wonderful sequence which is so slick that it elicits an appreciative round of applause!
Wade’s play manages to wrap some weighty and important themes in a very entertaining package. The characters are engaging and feel like proper people rather than sit-com characters. Ultimately, though, the sit-com format seems to constrain the depth and insight it can offer and I find myself wanting to know more about Judy’s motivation, which is only sketchily addressed. This seems especially frustrating because the nostalgic impulse is such a salient feature of our current political landscape.
Home I’m Darling is a beautifully executed, thoughtful and gently-funny play (evoking smiles and chuckles rather than belly-laughs) and a worthy winner of the Olivier Best New Comedy Award.