Writer: Laura Wade
Director: Liz Stevenson
It’s entirely appropriate that this revival of Laura Wade’s hit, co-produced with the Octagon, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, should begin its tour of the three co-producers at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Whilst being in no way derivative, the play is full of Ayckbournian echoes. It begins in exuberant satirical comedy, gleefully dissects a few of the follies of 21st century life, then finds surprisingly dark passages to explore before reaching some kind of a resolution. Rather neatly, if totally irrelevantly, both Home, I’m Darling and the latest Ayckbourn, The Girl Next Door, soon to return to the SJT, explore the differences between the world today and an earlier time when domestic chores were more labour-intensive.
It’s doubtful that the Scarborough Master would have permitted himself such a glibly contrived happy ending, though the ultimate finale is so triumphant and joyous that it seems churlish to complain. However, for the most part Laura Wade is as beady-eyed observer of Mankind as anyone could wish, unyielding in pursuing folly to its ultimate consequence.
Wade also shares with Ayckbourn a love of teasing the audience. The tease begins in the programme: “The action takes place in a 1950s suburban semi.” Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. Helen Coyston’s cluttered set is meticulously retro, down to the smallest detail, and Judy, in her kitchen pinny, coos her husband Johnny into breakfast in the manner of a sitcom wife, even slicing the top off his boiled egg. Ritualised kisses and expressions of love and joy see him off to work. We laugh at the spot-on parody, but it all seems somehow phoney. Then, when Johnny has left, Judy takes out her laptop. The audience gasps in amused surprise: it is all phoney!
Judy and Johnny have been living the 1950s dream for a few years, she taking voluntary redundancy to become a full-time housewife and care for, and protect, the breadwinner in every way. Her only concession to modernity is that laptop, essential to buy and sell articles on eBay and find details of 1950s festivals. Unfortunately, as breadwinners go, Johnny is not up to Judy’s extravagances and even more serious is a tendency for reality to break in – halfway through Act 2 things are getting murky and you question the term “comedy”.
Liz Stevenson directs a high-energy performance, its frequent re-settings between scenes accomplished by cast members strolling, dancing and posing to 1950s rock’n’roll. Sandy Foster is outstanding as Judy, that perfect smile always in place, even while the eyes register hurt for some trivial note of less than total approval, while she insists bravely that it’s really nothing. Less flamboyant, but equally effective, is Tom Kanji (Johnny) whose depths of dissatisfaction gradually break through his self-effacing charm.
In a play dominated by the character of Judy, two key moments come from the words and actions of others. Johnny’s new boss, Alex (female – not very 1950s) comes for cocktails, a fraught affair with Judy over-dressed in fur stole, and, when she hears the firm has clinched a big deal, Alex (Sophie Mercell, canny and convincing) and Johnny leap around in joy with a naturalness that leaves Judy stranded. In Act 2 comes the moment when Wade delivers the coup de grace to the English disease, nostalgia, as Judy’s mother (a knowing and acidulous Susan Twist) delivers a blistering attack on life in the 1950s.
The excellent cast is completed by Vicky Binns as Judy’s bright and sympathetic friend, Fran, and the Geoffrey Palmer-ish Sam Jenkins-Shaw as her husband Marcus who, in a final irony, finds himself in trouble for acting as if it really were the 1950s.
Runs until August 14th 2021, then tours to Bolton and Keswick