The onset of the so called “pingdemic” in the last few weeks has affected theatres across the country in their ability to continue offering live entertainment at their venues. Often it has only taken one member of cast or crew to test positive for the whole show to be closed down putting a hole into revenue streams at a time when they are sorely needed. By the same token it has almost certainly been the case that members of an audience have been unable to attend a show which has managed to keep going. It wasn’t long into the live run of Home, I’m Darling at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough that proceedings ground to a halt although the show has since reopened and is now in its last week of production. Fortunately, they also have a filmed version at their disposal for anyone who was unable to see the show in person and, for people like me, who would otherwise have missed the experience altogether simply for reasons of geography. The play was a hit at the National Theatre back in 2018 and then transferred to the West End for an extended run; it also completed a national tour. Given events in between this is probably its first regional revival and, as ever, the SJT does not disappoint.
Laura Wade’s script plays with expectations right from the off. Judy and Johnny live a life of domestic bliss; he goes out to work but looks forward to coming home and putting on his waiting slippers, sipping a cocktail and settling down for the evening. She stays at home and cooks, cleans, sews and makes the place ready for her man. The Martins are idyllically happy in this 1950s bijou home; except it isn’t, and they’re not. It’s all a pretence as this actually modern day pair escape back to what they perceive as a happier less stressful time when Doris Day was queen of the movies and Rock Hudson wasn’t even gay. They have kitted themselves out in vintage clothes of the period and furnished their home with period trappings which have cost a fortune to get hold of. Once Johnny gets home and the front door closes theirs is a world of cocktail parties, sitting round a small black and white TV set, enjoying home crafts and occasionally making it out into the real world for celebratory festivals of the era they are in thrall to.
Of course, it is all an illusion which is quickly shattered after the first ten minutes when Judy extracts a laptop from the kitchen drawer. Essentially they are cheats to their own credo and from here the cracks start to show. For a start it turns out that she is the one who controls and manages the finances – hardly in tune with the decade in question. She once had a high powered job commanding a bigger salary than her husband but gave it all up and now the money supporting their lifestyle is running out. It looks like they might have to sell up and take on a smaller place or, horror of horrors, that Judy might have to go back to work. Then Johnny reveals that he’s only doing it all to keep his wife happy, that he has feelings for someone else (unacted upon he claims) and that he sneaks off for pizza at lunchtime instead of eating the lovingly prepared sandwich with which his domestic goddess sends him off every day.
As counterpoints we meet best friends Fran and Marcus (Vicky Binns and Sam Jenkins- Shaw) who also enjoy the fifties but don’t take it as far as the Martins, though Marcus clearly feels that the gender politics of the era are something which should have been retained. There is also Johnny’s boss Alex (Sophie Mercell) – Judy’s been assuming it was a male boss – who is very much a product of the modern era and Judy’s mother (Susan Twist) a staunch feminist who brought her daughter up in a commune and is bemused as to why her offspring seems to be throwing away any advantages that the women of her time have managed to acquire. Sylvia (surely a deliberate nod to the suffragette leader) has one of the best speeches in the play when she picks apart the iniquities of the 1950s. She was there and remembers it as cold, dirty, racist, misogynist and austere in contrast to Judy’s day-glo coloured, sanitised, American Dream led recreation.
The casting is spot on with Sandy Foster as Judy outstanding in the lead role, increasingly showing us someone who has papered over the cracks of their life with pretence and artifice and has become afraid to face the real world. Even though what she is doing is ludicrous, Foster still manages to illicit sympathy as we can clearly see the pain behind the smile. Tom Kanji as Johnny I found a little less convincing, but I realised in retrospect that he was giving us glimpses into his character’s real feelings about the situation in which he has found himself trapped, so at that point I reversed my assessment. Between them they give us a couple who are apparently going to live happily ever after even while their world is rapidly disintegrating. In the end Wade’s script has them finding a compromise; I found this all a bit too pat but at least it was in keeping with the denouement of so much drama of the fifties.
Helen Coyston’s retro set is really enjoyable just on its own; how I wish I could have sat in the auditorium myself and drank it all in at leisure. I was particularly intrigued by the TV set, the screen of which is used as a clever framing device in the production’s opening; we used to have one just like it when I was growing up. In fact, my dad built it out of a kit and it served us well for a number of years even if the valves did take five minutes to warm up and it only got two channels. I suppose it’s better now, but I did have a warm glow when I saw it; the trouble is, as Judy and Johnny discover, nostalgia ain’t wot it used to be!
Production photos by Ellie Kurtz
Home, I’m Darling is available from The Stephen Joseph Theatre – click here
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