National Theatre (co-production with Theatr Clywd) (venue)
31 July 2018 (released)
07 August 2018
Laura Wade’s first new play since the highly-lauded Posh opens in the perky perfection of a 50’s suburban home, as we watch husband and wife Judy and Johnny perform a highly choreographed morning routine of domestic bliss: dressing, and breakfast and doe-eyed repartee, before Johnny leaves for work and Judy takes out her laptop… No, this is not in fact the Fifties, but a 21st century pastiche, created by Judy in her desire to leave a career in finance behind, and return home to become a full-time housewife, with all the 50s trimmings. It’s an interesting if scarcely credible premise, but its metaphorical purpose sets up an opportunity to explore contemporary gender roles, in comparison with the prevailing attitudes of a previous era.
It takes the premise that many of us yearn to retreat from the increasingly brutal realities of contemporary urban life, and cocoon ourselves in the balm of a bygone age, where life was simpler, more pleasant and optimistic – and ultimately more stable - free of all the encroaching hazards that come with technology, the relentless pursuit of money, and the erosion and redundancy of habits and traditions that are no longer deemed compatible with contemporary culture. Judy, played by Katherine Parkinson, who interestingly has workshopped the role since Wade began writing, and therefore embodies it entirely, enters into the decision to make this complete lifestyle volte-face in full collaboration with her estate agent husband Johnny, we see in a flashback sequence at the beginning of the second half. And the rest of piece plays out the consequences of their decision.
However, it also acutely observes how the retreat into nostalgia neglects to recall all the privations and inequalities that prevailed throughout the post-war era, and instead prefers to only remember the emergent achievements: domestic technology, exuberant fashion trends and home décor. This is expertly wrought by Anna Fleischle’s wonderful design for the set and the wardrobe throughout, making every scene rich in theatrical detail, as well as the musical interludes and choreography between scenes, which double as set changes, which enhance all the colour and whimsicality of the 50s outfits. Wade then slices straight through all that by giving Judy’s aging hippie mother (who raised Judy on a commune), played excellently by Sian Thomas, a searing monologue, expertly eviscerating her daughter’s fantasy, and reminding her of all the pain and hardship that Judy has failed in replicate within her 50s bubble.
Ultimately, the lesson learned here is that no matter what era one cleaves one’s heart to, one’s personal utopia is a hard-fought battle that requires constant effort. The intricacies of relationships and modern working life cannot be either solved or avoided through any amount of retro festivals and antique collectibles. However, the real celebration here is that we should all strive to avoid the homogeneity that lurks around every corner in the information age. We should all be able to “feel our fantasy”, as it were, as long as it doesn’t fail to take into account of what is happening elsewhere, outside the bubble. This is fascinating new material, both thought-provoking and entertaining, and well worth seeing.