Judy and Johnny are more than retro-style weekend warriors.
Over the past few years, they’ve taken their enthusiasm for 1950s-era clothes and culture to its furthest extent.
Everything 21st century has been excised from their English suburban home. The décor is 50s. The kitchen appliances are 50s. Every stick of furniture, the bathroom fittings, every stitch of clothing, is period and original.
Even the dinners Judy lovingly serves, and the sandwiches she wraps in greaseproof paper each morning for Johnny to take to the office, are faithful recreations of recipes found in post-war homemaker manuals.
It’s all as pretty as a Good Housekeeping picture. But in British writer Laura Wade award-winning Home, I’m Darling, the veneer is peeling at the corners.
Johnny and Judy have learned to cope with the niggling things: a 60-year-old fridge that’s always on the blink; an old Austin that breaks down all the time; good-humoured ribbing from friends and colleagues. But lurking at the heart of this “gingham paradise” (Judy’s mother’s description) lurk issues that the couple seem unwilling to confront – issues of control, of agency. Johnny and Judy’s embrace of an aspic-preserved past is a form of comfort-seeking, a yearning for an imaginary simpler time.
Children are notably absent from this picture of suburban contentment. Not so the demands for payment on their mortgage. The house might be very 50s but their debt levels are entirely 21st century. Judy took a voluntary redundancy to fund her housewifery but that money is spent. Moreover, Johnny’s image as a man accustomed to being waited on at home seems to be affecting his ability to get on at work.
Home, I’m Darling probes Johnny and Judy’s choices but not too deeply. Wade allows us to question its characters without eroding our affection for them.
Is Judy’s embrace of a traditional wifely role a reaction to a chaotic childhood in a commune and her mother’s staunch second-wave feminism?
Is her lifestyle an empowered choice (as she insists to her disapproving mum Sylvia) or is she internalising her own oppression as a self-made Stepford Wife?
Is Johnny relishing all this wifely attention and devotion to service, or is it taking something away from him?
Home, I’m Darling occupies the warmer end of the satirical spectrum, a theatrical cousin to that venerable TV series The Good Life. It’s tempting to think the play would have more satirical bite in its native UK. Are Judy and Johnny the result of decades of the same counter-progressive thinking that resulted in Brexit and Boris Johnson?
The satire gives way to emotion in the second half as Wade pulls various levers to make us feel something for Johnny and Judy. I found myself yearning for some kind of blow-up. Instead, Wade serves up compromise – though director Jessica Arthur, who helms this Sydney Theatre Company production very elegantly, leaves us with a bleak enough tableaux to suggest that compromise will come at significant cost.
The production is high-end in all respects. Designer Genevieve Blanchett’s split-level doll’s house set is appropriately fabulous – domestic space as mid-century modern museum exhibit. Her costume designs for Judy are wow-worthy.
Andrea Demetriades performs brilliantly in the central role, especially in those moments when Judy struggles to maintain her façade. Anthony Taufa fills out the relatively colourless role of Johnny very warmly. Tracy Mann brings peppery humour into the frame as Sylvia.
Kirsty Marillier makes a fine STC debut as Alex, Johnny’s peppy, air-punching boss. Chantelle Jamieson and Gareth Davies create strong presences for Judy’s nervously garrulous best friend Fran and her cooler-than-thou partner, Marcus.
Home, I’m Darling is generously satisfying theatre, especially if you are venturing out for the first time in a while. Judy and Johnny’s plight is sure to chime.