Stuff that matters

In the row behind me, a woman is admiring the vintage television on stage. She says she had the same model herself: “Thirty years we had that. Not a day wrong.”

You can see the attraction in Helen Coyston’s 1950s set and costume design. The jet-age tilt of armrests; big yellow skirts more voluminous with every twirl; spindly legs of a record player tapering to nothing – it’s all as cool as a pre-dinner gin cocktail. Happier times!

The purpose, however, of Laura Wade’s clever, needling play – first staged in 2018 – is not to sing the praises of the good old days. It is rather the reverse.

Home, I’m Darling imagines a high-achieving professional, Judy Martin, whose dismissal from her busy-busy job in finance allows her to turn her taste for retro style into a way of life. Played with mounting uncertainty by Sandy Foster, she trades people management for domestic management.

Dragging along her husband Johnny (a pliant Tom Kanji), she rebrands herself as a loving 50s housewife, dedicated to cleaning the backs of things, ironing shirts and serving devilled eggs. What she also gets is a throwback dependence on men, a narrowing of her horizons and a bemused Susan Twist as a mother aghast to see the gains of feminism cast aside.

Nobody uses the phrase “take back control”, but Judy’s nostalgia for supposedly better times rather overlooks the freezing housing, the single-income austerity and the general lack of agency that actually characterised the era. “You can’t do anything now,” grumbles best friend Marcus (a dangerously nice Sam Jenkins-Shaw), as Wade reminds us what it was like when predatory men like him could do exactly as they pleased. It is to Johnny’s credit that he loses faith in this gender-divided project before Judy does.

All this makes for a provocative thought experiment and a stern challenge to rose-tinted politics. Liz Stevenson’s production, though, is low on flamboyance and, once Foster and Kanji drop the period pastiche of the opening scene, the comedy is fitful. We see too little of the characters’ ridiculousness and get too little sense of the plot’s warped inevitability, even as the play delivers its dream-home truths.