Laura Wade has written a clever, witty play about our fast-moving attitudes towards traditional ideas of work, sex, power, and marriage, through the lens of Judy, an immaculately dressed and eager-to-please housewife (played by Jessica Ransom).
Except she’s not. After an opening scene of marital bliss with the husband (Neil McDermott) going to work on an egg, wearing his trilby, and carrying a billy can with his packed lunch, we realise this is the present day.
The ping of an Apple laptop is the only concession to the twentieth century allowed into this perfectly-curated 1950s home. The people behind me in the Devonshire Theatre, Eastbourne, were comparing notes on the décor they recognised from their grandparents’ – the pineapple ice bucket, the cheese plant, the yellow kitchenware, and enough ‘mid-century modern’ to make a hipster faint.
Anna Fleichle’s set design and staging is a triumph of the 1950s aesthetic, from the crinoline shirts to the devilled eggs. Even the set looks like a doll’s house, perhaps with a conscious nod to Ibsen. And the music – a joyous jukebox of rock n roll, do-wop, and crooners, with plenty of jive in between scenes.
The Platters’ ‘The Great Pretender’ is more than a soundtrack. It is Judy’s theme song. She is a modern woman raised in a squalid hippy commune near Brighton in the late-1980s, with the grown-ups railing against Reagan and Thatcher. She has jacked in her career in finance to pursue her fantasy of being a perfect housewife.
And yet the dream turns sour. Financial pressures pile up, her feminist mother (Stephanie Connell) worries about Judy wasting her life, and even her husband Johnny utters the ultimate in sexism to a woman spending all day plumping cushions, cleaning behind the fridge, polishing cutlery, applying lipstick, and mixing Old Fashioneds – ‘but you don’t do anything all day’. Neil McDermott’s line drew audible grasps from the audience on the night I saw it.
But that isn’t as bad as her best friend’s husband Marcus (Matthew Douglas) who is suspended from work for sexually harassing a junior member of his team, and turns out to be a real creep. This was written before #metoo but echoes perfectly the bemusement of men in powerful positions who can’t see anything wrong with slapping a co-worker’s bottom – for a joke.
The pivotal lines come from Judy’s mother who tears down her misplaced nostalgia for a time when she wasn’t even born. It was a time of make-do-and-mend, bland food, intolerance to anyone who wasn’t a straight white man. Women groped, no abortion, no healthcare, lives wasted, and above all, the bitter cold of that grey, rationed world before Betty Friedan, central heating, and the Beatles.
As Judy’s world collapses, we see a woman using her 1950s fantasy to hide from real life, and her obsessive behaviour borders on madness. Jessica Ranson’s performance stands out from the rest – she is simply brilliant at portraying a woman on the edge of a breakdown, reaching for the recipe books, gin, cigarettes, and her battered copy 1949 copy of Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run Your Home Without Help.
The play ends with some kind of resolution, and – no spoilers – a sense of equilibrium between the sexes. It is a beautifully-staged and crafted play, which foregrounds our modern concerns about identity and equality in a thoughtful way.
- By: Laura Wade
- Director: Tamara Harvey and Hannah Noone
- Photo by Jack Merriman
- Cast includes: Jessica Ransom, Neil McDermott, Cassie Bradley, Diane Keen, Shanez Pattni, Matthew Douglas
- Devonshire Theatre, Eastbourne
- Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one interval
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