SWEET peas in the garden; homemade lemon curd in the kitchen; marital bliss in the bedroom; Judy and Johnny seem to be the perfect couple. Sickeningly happy, in fact.
Yet is their marriage everything it seems? Are there cracks in their happiness? What happens when the 1950s’ family values they love so much hit the buffer in the 21st century, as the couple discover that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?
So runs the bumpy course of Laura Wade’s comedy, Home, I’m Darling, premiered in 2018 by Theatr Clwyd and the National Theatre and now revived in a co-production between Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, in Keswick, with a cast of Sandy Foster, Tom Kanji, Vicky Binns, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Sophie Mercell and Susan Twist.
The director is Liz Stevenson, Theatre by the Lake’s artistic director, best remembered in York for her beautiful 2018 touring production of The Secret Garden at the Theatre Royal.
“Home, I’m Darling is the perfect way to welcome back audiences to live theatre again,” she says. “Sharp, funny and incredibly timely, it’s one of those plays that will have everyone chuckling, discussing and debating long into the evening. I can’t wait to bring this brilliant play to life in-the-round with this incredible creative team and with three fantastic northern theatres.”
Home, I’m Darling has taken longer than first planned by Liz to find a northern home (or three!). “I’d heard so much about the first production, read the script and thought it would be a really interesting play for Theatre by the Lake, but then the pandemic happened and stopped everything,” she recalls.
“There’d been no firm plans; I just thought, ‘one day I bet this play will sit really well on the Keswick stage’. But when Theatre by the Lake, the Octagon and the SJT started talking about play titles for a partnership, this play came up.
“Then we started an online play-reading club with a group of about 40 people of all ages, and this was one of the plays we discussed, and it just confirmed it would go down really well if we ever did it.”
Roll on to summer 2021, and here comes Liz’s production. “It’s very funny, very entertaining, and because it’s in this 1950s-style household, there’s lots of fun and colour to it, but because the play is set now, there are lots of relatable, modern-day issues: feminism, gender roles…” she says.
… “We spoke to Laura [Wade] during rehearsals about people thinking about spending more time at home when losing their jobs, and then of course that’s what happened with the Covid lockdowns.
“People have had to spend time at home, where we’re all expected to have a family, hobbies, a clean home and a talent for baking. Pre-Covid, in this play, here we have someone who wants that life, who wants to be the contented housewife and wants to see people’s reaction to that.”
Perfect timing for her production, then. “It’s a play that will send people out on a high, and that’s something we all need at the moment after what we’ve been through,” says Liz.
Without giving too much away, Liz, what’s the plot? “Judy is 38, she’s been made redundant, and she’s thinking, ‘Do you know what, I’m not going to get another job, working in finance, working very long days, working at weekends’,” she outlines.
“Now she’s becoming an expert baker, an expert cleaner, and it looks like everything is perfect, but then cracks appear and over a fortnight you see things fall apart, as they think, ‘Do we want to spend our lives like this?’.
“She has a home that’s beautiful, where she has control, looking after that home and husband Johnny, but when you push that, it becomes unhealthy as friends start poking holes into this ‘perfect’ bubble, where she has shut herself in a world that she’s kept so small.
“That’s the realisation that Judy has by the end of the play, where she says, ‘I think I’m scared that I’m going to struggle to catch up with the world’. It’s about balance in your life and Judy doesn’t have that balance; she’s gone from one extreme to the other.”
“But what’s brilliant about Laura’s writing is that she’s not being heavy-handed; she’s putting questions out there, rather than coming up with answers, and those questions have become even more relevant with people working from home.”
Home, I’m Darling is a comedy with darkness at its edges. “A few people at the play-reading club who read it likened it to an Ayckbourn play, where it’s very funny, but there’s a lot of tension,” says Liz.
“The whole play is set in one space with the actors doing their brilliant thing as the characters’ behaviour affects each other and you see the tension rise within that concentrated setting.
“This production is the first time this play has been staged in the Round, so whereas previously the stage was like a doll’s house with the roof taken off, the benefit of the Round is you are so close to the actors, you will spot every pulling of a raised eyebrow.”
Like so many who work in theatre, Liz has experienced an unparalleled past 15 months. “It’s been really tough for us at Theatre by the Lake; we closed in March last year and we’re still closed, though we have lots of activity in the community and we’re doing a festival with English Touring Theatre at Crow Park [Keswick] in August,” she says.
“But when we do Home, I’m Darling from October 6 to 30, it will be my first show IN the theatre two years after my appointment as artistic director, though we have been rehearsing it inside the building, which has been lovely, and we can’t wait to see a show being put on here again.”
“Darlings, we’re home,” she can finally say at that point.
Home, I’m Darling, Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, tonight until August 14. Box office: sjt.uk.com