Judy and Johnny dress in typical 1950s fashion, live in a typical 1950s house and have a typical 1950s marriage. She dutifully makes his breakfast every morning and hands him his suitcase as he goes out to work. He returns home to a spotless house and dinner on the table. However, for Judy and Johnny it isn’t the 50s… it’s the present day.
The couple at the centre of Home I’m Darling, a new play which ran at Theatr Clwyd from 25th June to 14th July and is at the National Theatre from 24th July to 5th September, have long had an affinity for the 50s. They scour eBay for vintage products, go to classic car shows and attend something called Jivestock every year. They don’t have any children, but when Judy is forced to take voluntary redundancy from her high-powered job in finance, she decides to go fully 50s and become a housewife. Johnny is initially reluctant, but gets won around by the thought of home-cooked meals and a clean house, as well as Judy’s insistence that it’s her choice so it can’t be sexist. What starts out as a six-month trial turns into three years, and this is the point at which we join them.
Judy and Johnny’s lifestyle might seem extreme, but it’s an extension of a very real trend. How many people out there lately have become obsessed with the Great British Bake Off or Sewing Bee? And how many have bought cutesy pastel-coloured homeware, emblazoned with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan? In a society where the notion of a woman’s place being in the home is gradually becoming a thing of the past, the idea of the domestic goddess, all cupcakes and frilly aprons, is becoming increasingly fetishised.
Home I’m Darling hones in on what the play’s writer Laura Wade (‘Posh’) has described as “the vintage tribe – people who choose to style themselves and their home with objects from the past, and would prefer to live there rather than the modern world.” Tamara Harvey’s production certainly makes it easy to comprehend the appeal of the past for this “tribe”, or indeed for anyone, with its catchy soundtrack between scenes, its beautiful doll’s house-like set designed by Anna Fleischle, and the many glamorous outfits worn by Judy. Meanwhile, it succeeds in demonstrating that beyond this surface appeal, when it comes to Judy’s beloved “50s values”, things are nowhere near as simple.
Katherine Parkinson puts in a fantastic performance as the deluded Judy (a role that Wade created specifically for her), whose nostalgia for an era when she wasn’t even alive has left her living in a fantasy. On the face of it, she seems to have everything under control, and her relationship with Johnny (Richard Harrington) appears to be as picture-perfect as their home. But much like their temperamental 1950s fridge, there are issues under the surface of their marriage, with Judy hiding money problems from her husband while putting a lot of faith into him getting a promotion from new boss Alex (Sara Gregory).
Further disorder comes into Judy’s immaculate home, where swearing is forbidden and mobile phones are confined to a drawer, via her mum Sylvia (Sian Thomas). Having consciously raised her daughter to be a feminist, she is shocked and disappointed by the direction that Judy’s life has taken, and at one point delivers a powerful speech about what the 50s were actually like, as someone who lived through it, sparing no grisly details. Also sitting in effective contrast with Judy is her friend Fran (Kathryn Drysdale), who loves her job but has a boorish husband, Marcus (Barnaby Kay), intent on persuading her to follow Judy’s example and quit work.
Its set-up might feel alien at first glance, but Home I’m Darling shines an astute light on modern heterosexual relationships, in which it can be all too easy (and sometimes even appealing, if the outcome is an orderly home) to slip into traditional gender roles. It also provides a much-needed warning against romanticising the past, at a time when it seems that certain factions of British society are becoming increasingly enamoured with a bygone era and dismissive of the modern world.
Home I’m Darling can be seen at the National Theatre until September 5. For tickets visit here.