Judy and Johnny are in love with the 1950s: the threads, the nests, the frocks, the decor, the sounds, the chariots, the designs, the works! They first met through their mutual love of the period and became soul mates, visiting 1950s events such as JiveFest and indulging their passion with their friends Fran and Marcus. Both have well-paid gigs (Judy’s better paid than Johnny), but one day, Judy decides she’s had enough of her high-flying managerial job in finance, and the couple agree she should cop a breeze, and become a housewife instead. Rather, a 1950s housewife…
And so the pair indulge their passion that little bit more by morphing into the archetypal 50s marriage, with Judy staying at home to bake and clean, and looking after her hard-working husband hand and foot. Just like it used to be, in simpler times, when there were no smartphones or rolling news and all the brain-frazzling complications of 2018.
Except this is still 2018, and no matter how much Judy and Johnny surround themselves with 1950s iconography – their wallpaper, furniture, kitchenware, appliances, clothes, everything is authentically 1950s – they cannot escape the fact their period bubble exists within a bigger, modern world. Judy dislikes swearing in the house, discourages bad news being brought to her door, and gradually, over the course of three years, her passion for the 50s becomes an obsession. She’s in Fat City!
The 1950s is obviously an escape hatch for Judy, who lost her beloved father at a young age and grew up as part of a commune which did not make her a happy teenager. Her love for the 50s came about through her watching old movies starring James Stewart and Rock Hudson with her dad on a Saturday morning, but now he’s gone, her love of the decade is her best way of holding on to his memory.
Writer Laura Wade – acclaimed for her 2010 Royal Court smash Posh – has sculpted a beautiful, heartfelt, warm yet tragic tale of how a deep-seated sadness can consume you in unexpected ways.
But Home, I’m Darling isn’t just about the 1950s, and two people’s passion for it. It’s about female empowerment, how women use the power they have, and how men abuse the power they have over them. It’s a play very much of the #MeToo era, but it doesn’t tell its story through a veil of feminism, it’s far more subtle and nuanced than that. Judy goes from being a successful career woman to a (supposedly) successful homemaker, relinquishing the power and influence she had in the workplace to essentially become subservient to her husband. So far, so old-fashioned. But in truth, Judy’s growing obsession has subsumed her marriage and Johnny’s life too, giving her a different form of power over the two of them.
Female empowerment doesn’t always have to be about being the boss. A woman can be the boss, and then choose not to, and that’s powerful too. Having a choice is the ultimate equality, and Judy simply chose a different kind of life. That’s her right, but she also has to face the consequences of allowing her I Love Lucy ideals take over her entire existence (this is a woman who insists on having an original 1950s fridge, despite it breaking down constantly).
The way the play unfolds is part of its joy, so I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the cracks begin to show in Judy and Johnny’s gingham paradise as early as the second scene, when friend Fran comes to visit, armed with gossip and doubts to sow. The majority of the play is set three years after Judy and Johnny have embarked on this fantasy adventure back in time, but at the top of Act 2 there’s an important and revealing scene where we rewind to the moment they decided to do it, the day Judy decided to quit and become a 50s housewife. Everything about it is telling, particularly the costume and set design. It’s a small but vital scene, and Wade is a genius to slip it in.
Talking of the design, Anna Fleischle’s stunning giant dolls’ house set is a wonder to behold, taking every available inch of space in the Emlyn Williams studio space. It’s an entire house, complete with front door, sitting room, kitchen, stairs, hallway, bedroom and bathroom, all dressed straight out of the 1950s (a woman sitting behind me poured doubt over whether the toaster was authentically 1950s, but she was just being a party pooper!). The set is simply awesome, right down to the swinging wall sections and sliding doors. Fleischle is definitely made in the shade with this pad.
Top marks also to the talents behind the costume, wigs and make-up (Anna Fleischle and Sarah Louise Packham), and sound designer Tom Gibbons for creating an authentic and fun 50s soundtrack which avoids predictability.
The cast is exemplary. Leading from the front is Katherine Parkinson as Judy, maintaining an air of fragile composure throughout, but showing just enough chinks in the gingham to show she is a woman trying to make up for things lost. When she’s asked by Johnny whether her love of the 1950s is more important than her marriage to him, she replies: “I don’t know what I am without the 50s.” The quiet tragedy is palpable.
Richard Harrington’s Johnny is a happy-go-lucky chap on the surface, a man more than happy to go along with Judy’s routines until the obsession begins to infringe on his life outside of the home, at work and with his friends. He calls into question the whole idea of “living in the 50s”, and there are moments in Wade’s narrative where he becomes emotionally ambiguous, which is translated well by Harrington, whose famously puppy-dog eyes can betray far deeper feelings.
In support there’s flutter-bum Barnaby Kay as Marcus, the Tigger-like husband to Judy’s scooch Fran, played by the wonderful doll Kathryn Drysdale. Fran and Marcus have their own sub-plot which weaves into the #MeToo theme sensitively and responsibly. It examines how vulnerable men can feel in the workplace, and highlights another form of power women have over men which can often manifest in unpleasant ways. Kay and Drysdale work well together, jiving their way around the set during scene changes, and Drysdale in particular is a ball of energy who brings Fran leaping from the page fully-formed. She’s a real big tickle!
Judy’s world-weary mother Sylvia is played by the redoubtable Sian Thomas, who delivers an excoriating tirade against the virtues of the 1950s which leaves you wanting to both cheer and weep. Sara Gregory plays Johnny’s high-flying boss Alex (“You never said Alex was a woman,” says Judy with a jolt), a character who becomes a fly in Judy’s ointment but extricates herself with the professional elan with which she conducts all her business.
One of the underlying themes of Wade’s play is the mantra that you never really know how someone is with other people, you never really know what they do when you’re not there. It’s a theme which introduces doubt, fear and faltering confidence into the piece, and certainly makes the audience think this way too.
And the best thing about this play? What’s even better than the unreal cast, the talented tech crew, the awesome set, the bang-on costumes? It’s the beautiful symbiosis of talent and understanding between writer Laura Wade and director Tamara Harvey. They’re friends, and you can tell, because the production is clear and honest, unambiguous in its ambiguity. It can be hard to make the unsaid clear, to bring unspoken emotions and thoughts to the surface. But Wade’s every intention is lifted by Harvey’s hard work with the cast, and makes every nuance just visible. They really dig each other.
My favourite aspect of this whole fantastic show? It’s the fact there’s a happy ending. Judy and Johnny’s marriage comes under incredible pressure and strain as the veneer begins to crumble and the masks begin to slip, and they come very close to losing it all. But what I love is that love prevails. They are soul mates. They’re not just two people who liked each other and got married. They have a connection that can see them through the toughest of times, and it would have been demoralising and dishonest of Wade to let Judy and Johnny fall apart. The fact these characters can overcome all odds because their love is unshakeable is a rewarding and uplifting way to end it all.
The word from the bird is that Home, I’m Darling is a blast, and you’ll get a very large charge if you make the scene before it transfers to the National Theatre. It’ll definitely razz your berries!
Until July 14th, then transferring to the National Theatre until September.