Dorfman, National Theatre, London – until 31 August 2018
In a lovely dolls-house set, Judy bustles about happily in a gay flouncy full skirt and pinny. She runs hubby’s morning bath, makes his packed lunch in a handled box (no plastic) and trills up the stairs that she’s taken the top off his fresh-boiled egg. Off to the office he goes, with hat and dutiful kiss. Then getting the first proper laugh of the evening, wifey takes out a MacBook Air. She has to google the best way of shining taps with lemon-peel and knocking up cheese straws and hellish devilled eggs for cocktail time.
For it is not actually 1953, except in Judy’s stubborn head. She is, a century on, a sort of negative of the domestically trapped heroine in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. An anti-Nora. There’s even a parallel door-slam at the end to be spotted by the theatre-savvy ironists.
Laura Wade scored a big hit when she wrote POSH, which became the film Riot Club: I was the exception, finding its Bullingdon-Club hatefulness too much of a cartoon and its conclusion improbable. But it suited the easy-leftish mood of the time and the rise of Coalition resentment, so good luck to its fans. This time Wade’s gift for caricature is turned on a target more interesting, and more attention is paid – though not entirely convincingly – to the characters’ real psychology.
That target, the root of her heroine Judy’s disturbingly deluded lifestyle, is the recent emergence of retro domestic-goddessry, that Bake-Off, Cath-Kidstonian idea of ditching feminist striving to live the flowery 1950s dream. She has – we learn a bit too slowly – rebelled against a feminist-commune hippie upbringing , given up a well-paid job and devoted herself to amassing retro housewares (I did admire the lacy bobble cloth on the milk bottle). She loves to do obsessive perfectionist housework before getting lipsticked and “fresh as a daisy” to greet John (the provider, “my rock, my Rock Hudson”) back each day from his precarious job as an estate agent on commission. That this hobbyist lifestyle choice is economic nonsense becomes clear as the first act ends; even more obvious that it threatens his very survival in the modern world under a sleek woman boss (Sara Gregory, foxily omnicompetent).
Katherine Parkinson’s Judy is perfectly pitched, a staccato brittle sweetness overlaying timid rage and fear of modernity; the hapless John (Richard Harrington)is sympathetic. There is obvious fun to be had with the situation, though Tamara Harvey’s directorial flourish of having their friends Marcus and Fran jiving round the set in related entr’actes palls a bit. There are some good laughs: the absolute best is a grand long rant in the second act when the magnificent Sian Thomas as Judy’s mother explodes in contempt of her daughter’s “gingham paradise”. Nostalgia, she points out, used to be regarded as an illness. And “the ‘fifties were terrible. Do you know how cold it was? everyone huddled round their own fireplace ‘cos everwhere else was freezing…Sudays that lasted a month, nothing open..greymeat, grey people, everything grey…and don’t expect not to be groped at work, that’s the least of your worries..” It goes on. One longs to shout “ encore!” and hear her do it again. Especially if the said 50s were one’s own early childhood, chilblains and all.
That is one of the few blasts of real, exasperated truthfulness. Johnny’s sudden honesty is good too, as he pleads that in this prissy escapist make-believe to which he agreed, they are only “performing” their marriage. That could hit home in many relationships of the Instagram age. But the play’s construction – especially one ill-placed brief flashback scene with no apparent reason unless to display a cunning set trick by Anna Fleischle -feels clumsy. And the feelgood ending hovers between being improbably saccharine and – because Parkinson really is superb – properly touching. The problem for me is that as her eccentricity suggests for much of the play that she is quite mentally ill, recovery comes that bit too quickly.
box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 31 August