Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 13 April 2019 before touring
Losing your job can affect people in different ways but Judy Martin retreats into a 1950s Twilight Zone in Laura Wade’s surreal, bittersweet, comedy Home, I’m Darling which opened this week at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
There was a time when a housewife was respected and revered but these days, after years of female emancipation, low wages and rising prices, they’re a rare commodity. “What do you DO all day?” asks Judy’s appalled mother, Sylvia.
Judy, 38, was a lawyer until she was pretty much forced into voluntary redundancy. It’s a bitter blow for anyone but it seems to have sent Judy off the rails. She tells her estate agent husband Johnny that she intends to take a time out from 21st century real life and, as an experiment, turn the clock back to the 1950s when women stayed at home and kept house while their lords, masters and providers went to work.
In 2019 this may seem batty, especially when women have fought so long to be free of the kitchen sink but, for Judy, it’s a sanctuary. She’s been so battered by the pressures of modern life that all she wants to do is cook, clean and make cocktails. Johnny initially thinks that the whole thing is a jolly wheeze – well he would, being waited on hand and foot – but pretty soon life in the 1950s begins to suffocate both of them.
He struggles with the pressure of having to bring home the bacon while she works her way through her redundancy pay secretly rescuing the couple’s crippled finances. Home, I’m Darling, a co-production from Theatr Clwyd and the National Theatre, proved a sell out success when it ran in the tiny Dorfman Theatre last year and it well deserves this West End transfer.
It may, superficially, be a very funny comedy, but there’s an awful lot going on in Wade’s acutely observed and intriguing play. Judy’s obsession with the 1950s knows no bounds. Her shopping is decanted into authentic vintage packaging; her vast collection of floral flare dresses are sourced online; and their home in Welwyn Garden City is a migraine of vibrant clashing geometric patterns – complete with genuine retro fridge and plastic pineapple ice bucket.
She has created a nostalgic retro womb to crawl into, cutting herself off from the outside world. The only problem is that the big bad world is forcing itself into her perfectly constructed fantasy.
Judy’s bible is Kay Smallshaw’s book, How To run Your Home Without Help, published in 1948, which gives advice on how to be the ideal domestic goddess if one can no longer afford to hire staff.
And it looks as though she has cracked it. Johnny and Judy, beaming contentedly as though they’re on high dose Prozac, seem blissfully happy.
Yet, behind the Good Housekeeping facade is a deeply unhappy woman and an equally disappointed, depressed and frustrated husband.
The whole ’50s fantasy idyll is an anathema to Judy’s mother who was a militant feminist back in the day, raising her daughter in a collective.
“The ’50s didn’t look like this even in the ’50s!” she explodes. “The ’50s were terrible. The idea that anyone would want to go back there is ridiculous.
“How do you think I feel telling people my daughter is a housewife?”
Katherine Parkinson, ably assisted by the most gorgeous and swooshiest frocks I’ve seen, has an uncanny ability to say the funniest lines while her eyes are brimming with sadness.
She floats around Anna Fleischie’s wonderfully well appointed vintage set with a Colgate smile fixed on her face, making curried eggs and gin gimlets, furiously scrubbing out stains and doing a superb impression of a Stepford wife.
The only time her hackles rise is when husband, Johnny (a Brylcreemed Richard Harrington giving a very strong performance) brings home his young, female boss, Alex, who finds the whole nostalgia trip more than a little weird.
“I feel like I’m in Mad Men or something!” she exclaims.
The odd thing is that Judy has invented an American ’50s world to inhabit, even sending Johnny off to work with one of those industrial sized lunchboxes.
Post-war Britain, still in the throes of rationing, was nowhere near as wealthy, colourful, well equipped or beautifully dressed.
Susan Brown, as Sylvia, gives a bold cameo as Judy’s mum. She’s bristling with indignation, desperate to shake her daughter out of the torpor she’s in but not even a mother-daughter bonding session over a sneaky fag and glass of gin, helps.
Siubhan Harrison and Hywel Morgan’s offer excellent support as the couple’s best friends, Fran and Marcus.
The pair briefly take to the stage between scenes, rockabilly dancing and changing the set over, but their parts are under-written and their involvement in the story is limited.
Nevertheless, director Tamara Harvey has produced a sparkling, sad, terribly clever and very inventive (just watch the set rearrange and tidy itself) play which exposes the emotional fallout of modern day, fast-track living.
Home, I’m Darling runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until April 13 and then tours to Theatre Royal Bath (April 16-20); The Lowry, Salford (April 23-27); and Theatr Clwyd, Mold (April 30-May 4.)
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