Review by Rosie Holmes
‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’ and nor is Judy and Johnny’s dream 50’s lifestyle as perfect as it seems. Home, I’m Darling is a witty yet weighty dissection of gender roles and the division of labour. The piece premiered in 2018 and has since enjoyed runs at the National Theatre, in the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre, and is now on a UK tour. Having won an Olivier award for best new comedy in 2019, and admittedly already won over by its gloriously kitsch programme and publicity issues, this was a show I was very excited to see.
Our protagonists, Johnny and Judy are “sickeningly happy” in their married life - Judy waits on Johnny, preparing his breakfast daily, growing vegetables in the garden, and serving cocktails upon his arrival home from work. They appear to be living the ideal 50’s dream - that is until Judy takes out her laptop. We soon find out that the happy couple are in fact living in the 21st century. Judy, once a career woman working in finance until pushed to take redundancy decides to embrace her fantasy of living in the 1950s, becoming the perfect housewife and harking back to an era she believes was simpler and friendlier.
However, behind their smiles, immaculately decorated home, and gorgeous swirly skirts all is not well in the fantasy world in which they have created for themselves. Judy strives towards the most authentic 50s life possible, emptying milk from plastic cartons into glass bottles and refusing to have a mobile phone. As a result, she feels further and further isolated from the world around her and increasingly resentful of her husband who is out in the world. At the same time, her husband Johnny becomes increasingly worn down by the pressures of being the sole breadwinner.
This premise of the story is a wonderful idea, a vehicle in which to explore different views on feminism. Can a woman truly be fulfilled by being completely financially dependent on a man? Or is Judy’s choice to live by outdated values a feminist decision too, as it was made by herself. Visits from those living in the real world really allow these topics to be examined interrogating not only the characters themselves but the audience on topics such as the division of labour.
Particularly fascinating is the relationship between Judy and her mother, Sylvia, played by Diane Keen. Feminist Sylvia, is exasperated by her daughter’s attempt to live in a word that she never even experienced herself. A monologue delivered by Diane Keen is one of the strongest parts of the play as she provides the voice of reason and clearly explains the 50s were not all that; certainly not if you were anything other than a straight, white man. Keen delivers a wonderfully accomplished performance and left me wishing we had seen more of her.
Similarly, Johnny and Judy’s friends Fran and Marcus make intermittent appearances. Not only, performing wonderful 50’s jives as they make changes to the set but as fellow 50s enthusiasts, although not quite to the extent of their friends. Cassie Bradley delivers a portrait of an all too familiar modern woman, perfectly in contrast to Judy. Time poor, working in a job for which she is passionate, yet still facing many of the same pressures to keep a tidy home, cook and clean. Bradley is very likeable and shows off what a wonderful actress she is in a particularly impactful scene whereby she reveals a truth about her husband, Marcus.
Matthew Douglas takes on the role of Marcus, ominously cheerful, he very much fools the audience into liking him for the first half of the play. However, as the story unfolds, Douglas’ character plays a much more important role in the social commentary at play here as it is revealed he has been suspended by his workplace for suspected sexual assault. As his best friend, and husband to Judy, Neil McDermott is a stand out as the almost cartoon like 50’s husband Johnny. McDermott’s chemistry with Jessica Ransom’s Judy is unfaltering and he delivers a wonderfully accomplished performance of a man that jumps between the sickeningly happy husband and one that’s not only frustrated and pressured by his role as the sole provider but anxious at the effect their 50s arrangement is having on their marriage.
However, the night really belongs to Jessica Ransom who plays Judy. Increasingly frazzled, yet reluctant to let the perfect housewife façade slip, Ransom plays a woman, anxious and vulnerable yet unwilling to show it. Ransom’s strive for perfection is often frustrating, particularly in the arguments she has with Johnny, yet it allows for her character to still be likeable as she displays her vulnerability. Ransom somehow makes her character who appears to live quite a peculiar life remarkably rather relatable, delivering lines with excellent comic timing which allows for many laughs between some of the weightier subjects.
Set design by Anna Fleischle transports the audience back to the 1950’s for one night only (or for a 3-year experiment if you are Johnny and Judy). Comprising a two-storey home, the set is a kitsch dream with pineapple ice cube holders and pastel whistling kettles. All juxtaposed may I add with the odd glimpse of a clue that the setting is actually the 21st century such as a discarded PG tips box. Much like Judy and Johnny’s life, within the set there are secrets to be revealed. Double sided set pieces allow for a nifty and quick flashback to Johnny and Judy’s life prior to their 1950s arrangement which is very effective. Similarly, costume design by Fleischle and Cat Fuller is quite simply wonderful. I can’t help feel they must have been in their absolute element here with Judy displaying a whole array of gorgeously swishy 50’s frocks which again, effectively transport the audience to bygone times.
There are plenty of interesting ideas in this piece, the discussion of gender roles and the division of labour, the expectations on women, and their autonomy. Occasionally it does feel as if there are a few too many ideas and comments, that had there been fewer of may have been more effective. However, for the most part, the writing is pacey, witty and clever enough that actually this is not the case.
Home, I’m Darling, was a wonderful way to spend a few hours, showcasing wonderful performances from its stellar cast and extremely clever writing and social commentary. For me one of the strengths of this show was its ability to discuss heavier themes in a remarkably accessible way. It was clearly enjoyed by all in the audience and examined topics that affect us all. Writer Laura Wade perfectly makes the point here that increasingly outdated gender roles can and should be critiqued without undermining the women that took part in these roles. This is a show I highly recommend, and to be honest even without the clever writing and excellent performances, I would see it again just for the outfits.
Home, I’m Darling continues its UK tour until 13th May. Full dates and tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/home-im-darling/