Fashionistas, help me; I can’t remember, is Retro in or out this year? Whatever, it’s definitely in chez Judy and Johnny, where she spends her day dressed in her best 1950s garb, preparing meals for her beloved on a 1950s stove, using ingredients distilled into 1950s packaging, cleaning the floor with her 1950s carpet sweeper, and preparing 1950s cocktails for Johnny when he comes home from work.
But this is not the 1950s. This is today; and in her search to find her true self, Judy has espoused her favourite decade 100%. No interior design out of place, from the TV to the telephone, the sofa to the fridge, everything is genuine 1950s. Her only day-to-day link with the modern world in her home is her laptop, because she relies on eBay and Amazon to furnish her with her outdated, second-hand necessities. And, despite her spirited defence of her way of life, it’s all very sad.
Anna Fleischle has gone to town in creating her delightful 1950s set. When we see it, as we enter the auditorium, with its dolls’ house frontage, it suggests both a perfect idyll, but also a plaything, a façade. However, when the front of the house flies up and Judy comes along and physically pushes the front door into place to reveal a proper, lived-in home, we discover this is genuinely her real life. Visually, it’s both amusing and stunning, with excellent attention to detail, from the pineapple ice-bucket to the starburst mirror. The superb 50s styling of Judy’s clothes make for an obvious contrast with the modern-day outfits worn by everyone else who comes to her house. There’s a moment in the second act when the set comes to life and switches from “half-renovated” to “fully-DIY’d” and receives a round of applause all for itself.
And I think that’s the key to the whole play. On the face of it, it’s quirky, funny, outrageous even. But when you get under the surface, there’s not actually a lot going on. I can sum up the plot quite simply: Woman takes voluntary redundancy in order to live out 1950s fantasy existence; runs out of money, goes back to work. That’s it. The rest of the play is padded out, watching Judy interact with the outside world in the form of her friend Fran, her mother Sylvia and Johnny’s boss Alex. None of them really “get it” – Fran is supportive of her lifestyle, but bemused; Sylvia thinks she’s an idiot; and Alex suspects that whatever it is that Judy’s got, Johnny might catch it. Johnny blames the fact that he was passed up for promotion on Judy’s 50s obsession which made Alex feel uneasy – and he’s probably right.
In fact, it may well be that Judy’s mental health is in question here, revealing some need to turn her back on reality and escape into her own little cocoon. However, if that is the case, then it appears to be one of the most easily treated mental illnesses ever recorded; simply by happily skipping off to work at the end of the play, it implies she’s cured. I think the play is also trying to send a message about feminism – but I can’t quite work out what that message is. All the way through, it’s Judy who’s in the driver’s seat. She decides to leave work, she decides to devote herself full-time to running her fantasy household, she decides to conceal their debt from Johnny, she decides to go back to work. As a couple, she’s takes the assertive role, and he’s the passive one. But despite that, she’s not happy, and she doesn’t achieve what she wants. Don’t push too hard, your dreams are china in your hand? Not sure.
You might be getting the message, gentle reader, that I didn’t care for this play very much. Sadly, that’s true. Despite its initial impact – that opening scene ends with a delightful coup de theatre – I began to get a little bored, which for me is the cardinal sin for a play. None of the characters is particularly likeable, except Judy’s tell-it-like-it-is mother Sylvia, who tries desperately to appeal to her daughter to see sense and take control of reality. As she says, unless you were a straight white male, the 50s were shit. Why celebrate that time of rationing and dreariness now? It’s not unlike the current fad for pro-Brexiteers to hanker after the good old days of the Second World War; we survived it then, we can survive it now. But, as Sylvia tries to make Judy see, it’s clearly a smokescreen for something else. Doesn’t she want to achieve more than mere survival?
Got political there, soz. Nearly everyone else in the play – Johnny, Fran, Alex – is portrayed with only modest, vanilla characterisation so we don’t really know much about them; and Marcus is clearly a sex pest but only has a minor involvement in the story. As for Laura Wade’s writing, it’s quite funny in parts, but probably not funny enough to think of it as a proper comedy. Any serious attempt to draw out a feminist – or indeed anti-feminist – argument in the play gets bogged down and befuddled. In the end, this is simply a story of someone making a decision to do something; then realising they were wrong and changing their mind; then moving on. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? I sense there’s a good play lurking under the surface here, but Home I’m Darling isn’t it.
Katherine Parkinson is one of our most intelligent and insightful stage performers and she makes the best of the role of Judy, revealing the character’s inner frustrations and ambitious motives, but even she can’t make it soar. Susan Brown is excellent as Sylvia, dishing out her caustic bonmots and the stage certainly brightens up when she comes on. Sara Gregory gives a nicely perplexed performance as Johnny’s boss Alex, out of her depth in weirdo-land.
But I’m afraid I was distinctly unimpressed with the whole thing. Happy to accept that I’m out of kilter on this one as it received rapturous applause from the audience and the critics have rated it highly. After its short stay at the Duke of York’s, it’s having a mini-tour to Bath and the Lowry in Salford, before returning to its birthplace from last summer, Theatr Clwyd.
P. S. Perhaps my reaction was in part to the uncomfortable nature of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Yes, it looks beautiful, but the bars and public areas are cramped and the toilets few-and-far-between. Go to the loo before you arrive!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan