Home, I’m Darling – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre
By Eve Luddington, August 2021
Judy serves her husband his breakfast in their tidy 1950s Welwyn Garden City kitchen: boiled egg, homemade conserves and toast. She wears a primrose yellow frock with circle skirt and a pinny, bright lipstick and a shiny smile; he’s dressed soberly for work in his suit and tie.
‘Are you happy, darling?’ asks Johnny.
‘Very happy,’ she smiles. ‘Are you happy darling?
‘Awfully… Sickeningly happy.’
She hands him his sandwich bag, he dons his hat – and off he goes. They’re the perfect 1950s couple, complete with clipped pronunciation, in their perfect home. The design, by Helen Coyston, suits the scene admirably.
Then Judy gets out her laptop.
Clearly, all is not as it first seems in Laura Wade’s play, Home, I’m Darling, premiered in 2018. Actually, this couple live in the 21st century. But Judy, dominated by feminist matriarchs as a teenager, has chosen, as a ‘modern feminist’, to live in her version of the ‘50s, and she’s persuaded her compliant husband to go along with her. She, once the main breadwinner, is now a Housewife. Along with the formica and gramophone, they’ve adopted ‘traditional’ roles and values.
Playwright Laura Wade uses this intriguing idea, and a handful of contrasting characters, to explore the meaning of feminism and to compare ‘traditional’ and modern middle-class values.
Judy’s mother, in a compelling, forceful performance by Susan Twist, has fought against traditional values all her life and is shocked by her daughter’s new lifestyle. Wade’s writing is at its eloquent and persuasive best when mum, in a monologue performed with great conviction by Twist, remembers living through that era, when recovery from war and rationing, and a longing for something better, were the reality.
Thanks to the efforts of people like her, Johnny’s young, black, female boss wears her feminism naturally. She’s played with delightful bounce by Sophie Mercell. But the couple’s friend, Marcus, in an ominously charming performance by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, would like nothing more than for the ladies to pander to all his needs. He’s out of luck with his straight-talking wife, played with an engaging, gobby assurance by Vicky Binns: she’s not of the ‘Stepford Wife’ ilk.
As for Judy herself, who has minimal contact with the real world, nothing must scratch the veneer of marital bliss, so anything nasty must be dismissed. Sandy Foster is convincing as an energetic wilful woman whose uncompromising commitment to her ideal is blinding her to the demands of an honest relationship and driving her brightly, scarily bonkers. Tom Kanji, as Johnny, successfully embodies the growing discomfort of a man whose natural sincerity and career prospects are blighted by this charade. The couple are trapped in a fantasy bubble of Judy’s making.
Home, I’m Darling won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2019. The cast of this co-production between SJT, the Bolton Octagon and Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, directed by Liz Stevenson, are effective, their characters believable. But the pace isn’t helped by the languorous music and unnecessary business which accompanies scene-changes.
And there’s something missing. The absurd comedy inherent in the play, which might more entertainingly reveal the message, is never quite realised. After the delightful parody in Scene One, it’s low on laughs and flourish.
I watched a streaming at home and wondered at first if this affected my enjoyment – but I don’t think so: the live audience weren’t laughing much either. And the final scene, which might fit well in a production handled more lightly, was strangely unsatisfying. So, engaged as I was by Wade’s ideas, the staging and the acting, I ended up being disappointed by the overall production.
images: Ellie Kurttz