The style almost becomes the substance in this play of nostalgia-fetish gone wrong

Johnny (Anthony Taufa, left) and Judy (Andrea Demetriades ) in "Home, I'm Darling". Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Review: Home, I’m Darling by the Sydney Theatre Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House – Tuesday, 20 April, 2021. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★ 1/2

Many a female protagonist has gripped us with her story of patriarchal escape – from Shirley Valentine breaking free from the mundane oppression of housewife suburbia to Ibsen’s Nora shaking the shackles of gendered role play with her controlling husband.

In this play, writer Laura Wade explores what happens when a woman today freely chooses a 1950s-style life of domestic servitude.

Her protagonist, Judy, even describes it as a “feminist choice”. It’s a gauntlet for those claiming feminism is all about the freedom of choice, and not the dogmatic imposition of the choices they’d prefer women to make: rejecting a subordinate status and gaining independence. 

In the gloriously stylised opening scene, Judy is willingly subordinate. She sings with a delirious joy as she cooks her husband, Johnny, breakfast, dresses him in clothes she has ironed and discusses the chores for the day she’s looking forward to tending. When he returns home, she has a cocktail waiting, removes his shoes, rubs his feet and puts on his slippers before feeding him a home-cooked dinner.

The hubris, though, is signposted ostentatiously and early on, with each declaring to the other they’re “terribly” or “appallingly” happy. The adverbs are loaded. The audience already knows this will not last and probably isn’t authentic.

The first surprising flourish, the emergence of trappings of the modern world, is a delight to witness. The anachronism is initially discombobulating, until you realise Judy and Johnny have created a nostalgic fantasy bubble by recreating a 1950s household, right down to Judy’s (admittedly sublime) outfits. 

Judy was once a high flying career woman, managing a team in a financial institution. That Judy scoffed at a male staff member, on five times her salary, who had his secretary print his emails daily so he could handwrite replies for her to type up in the morning. The audacious and exhausting unfairness of the gender split seems so stubborn in her workplace, she opts to throw in the towel by mounting the pendulum heading the other way. Rather than defeatism, Judy claims it is liberation.

Andrea Demetriades donning 1950s housewife garb in Home, I’m Darling. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Redundancy makes her re-evaluate her life choices, and she proposes indulging the couple’s 1950s interest. It started as a social gathering at a dance group where they met another ‘50s enthusiast couple, Fran and Marcus. 

Fran’s curious about Judy’s fantasy extending way beyond the dancing, but sees her as an eccentric rather than an inspiration. Fran enjoys her job “and I’m good at it”, she says. Marcus, however, has attitudes towards women which belong in the 1950s, as Judy discovers in one powerful scene where he offers to pay her for some ‘50s office role play – sexual harassment included. It’s the point when Judy, whose household finances are now unaffordable, has drained her parent-gifted savings and has defaulted on her mortgage, has her commitment to her ‘50s fantasy truly tested.

It’s more sinister than a fantasy; its romanticism bordering on fetishisation of the subordinate role. Judy tells herself she’s doing it because the ‘50s were kinder, gentler (and less distracted by smartphones), a statement challenged by her friend who considers the plight and oppression of black and queer people during the era. Judy tells her husband, who overcomes initial reluctance to embrace the idea, that they’ll both be less tired after just always being busy – until she discovers he wants his wife to be his equal, not his subordinate. 

When Johnny’s promotion doesn’t eventuate – in part because of the oddities his wife displays by dressing up to the nines and lavishing his young-gun female boss, Alex, with ‘50s style hospitality, and partly because he’s underperforming on his targets, buckling under the pressure of being the sole breadwinner – things unravel. 

The initial six month experiment has expanded to two years and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. It’s financially unsustainable. But when the money issue is resolved, Judy must face the reality that this fetishisation is also socially, romantically, psychologically and technologically unsustainable. The role play must end – except this time, it’s ushered by the husband, subverting Nora’s choice in A Doll’s House.  

There are distinct echoes here of Serena Joy from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which famously only used accurate historical events to depict a dystopian future featuring a return to ultra-conservative values. Serena is thought to have been based on Phyllis Schlafly – recently played by Cate Blanchett in Mrs America – who successfully opposed the second wave feminist push for the Equal Rights Amendment and aggressively defended the role of the housewife.

Sitting in the tradition of nostalgia gone wrong, Home, I’m Darling borrows from films such as Far From Heaven and Goodbye, Lenin! and also from the daughter-rebels-against-mother subversion in Jennifer Saunders’ Absolutely Fabulous.

Judy’s mum, Sylvia (played with utterly convincing clarity by Tracy Mann) delivers a blistering sting on the 1950s by someone who actually lived through them – and hated them. She became a radical femninst, bringing Judy up in a commune where she was co-parented and nobody did the female-oppressing housework. “It was filthy,” Judy complains.

Tracy Mann is utterly convincing as Judy’s mum, Sylvia. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

“This is not what us feminists marched for,” her mother retorts, gesticulating to the way in which Judy has used her privilege to diminish herself. 

Nobody on stage can really match the mother-daughter polar opposites; Andrea Demetriades plays the lead with a flawless aplomb. It is, perhaps, too flawless; if you’re gunning for a Mama Rose style breakdown on stage, you’ll be disappointed. The veneer is so perfected, the role perhaps prohibits the rawness that would enable full emotional connection between the audience and Judy. 

Genevieve Blanchett’s already lush set design comes into its own in the last moments of the play, with a surprising twist. Like the outfits of this highly stylised production, the style is so heightened, it almost becomes the substance. The immaculate home itself, which the play’s subverted title speaks to, becomes personified into a character.

As the house, which has remained static for so long in the production, finally begins to revolve, the pendulum swings back. What remained stuck and unchanging starts to, against all odds, move and shift. It’s an elegant way of depicting the unstoppable forward motion of progress.

Home, I’m Darling is performed by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney from Tuesday, 6 April to Saturday, 15 May, 2021. For tickets ($49–$99) and further info, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2021/home-im-darling.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.