Review: Home I’m Darling. Cambridge Arts Theatre

Home, I’m Darling

2nd May 2023

Cambridge Arts Theatre

Thankfully, the 1950s idea of “a woman’s place is in the home” seems absurd to modern audiences, but what if someone actively chooses that lifestyle, not just to be a proud home-maker but in a full stylistic façade with all of the outfits, ideals and technological limitations that came with living in a post-wartime Britain?  That’s the question asked by ‘Home I’m Darling’, Laura Wade’s satirical and “funny sad” comedy which won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2019.  A new touring production hit the road earlier this year, and is now nearing its end, playing the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week before finishing in Canterbury on 13th May.

After learning that she’s up for voluntary redundancy in her managerial career, Judy Martin (Jessica Ransom) suggests to her husband Johnny (Neil McDermott) that she stays at home for a while to properly look after the house and dote on him to show how much she cares.  Already a fan of the vintage fashions and music, Judy’s idea soon involves into the couple living as if they’re in the 1950s; Judy has Johnny’s breakfast ready every morning (prepared with aging appliances), sends him off to work with a kiss and spends the days cleaning the house so it’s always immaculately done (“even cleaning behind things”), before preparing Johnny’s dinner and a cocktail to welcome him back home again.  Judy’s mother Sylvia (Diane Keen) becomes deeply concerned about Judy wasting her life “just being a housewife”, and despite Judy’s assurances that she’s happy with her choice, cracks start to form in the perfect “sickeningly happy” existence that Judy’s created and leave her struggling to know what her true identity really is.

Winning the “Best New Comedy” Olivier has set a slightly unattainable expectation for ‘Home I’m Darling’, as the play is amusing rather than hilarious, being actually more insightful with a deeper wistful tone rather than having its audience rolling in the aisles.  Seeing 1950s attitudes towards women being undertaken and upheld by a leading actress in 2023 feels initially jarring, but as Judy herself rightly says, “it’s my choice to make”, and the play is a fascinating look at women’s place in society and their autonomy over their own lives, along with being an intriguing character study of identity; Judy’s self-constructed façade of idealism becomes her own prison, with her later confessing to Johnny that she doesn’t know who she is without it.  Seeing her keep up the “Donna Reed” idea of perfection while clearly beginning to crumble inside from modern-day pressures of financial security is both compelling and heart-breaking to watch.  Laura Wade writes the character so richly that everything feels utterly genuine (helped by Jessica Ransom’s excellent leading turn), and ensures the audience stay on Judy’s side despite probably not agreeing with her decisions.  There are moments where it does feel a bit tonally uneven, infrequent strong language feels unnecessary (presumably done to shatter the 1950s idealistic façade, but it feels vulgar), and the ending could perhaps be a little more substantial, but it’s an engaging journey worth taking.  Special mention must also go to Anna Fleischle’s wonderful set and costume design, which transport you immediately back to the 50s.  The set has been intricately thought out with some lovely detail, and the costumes are spot-on. 

Jessica Ransom is fantastic as Judy, cleverly letting glimpses of sadness show as the mask begins to slip, and conveying a wide-eyed sense of desolation later on when everything falls apart.  She’s wonderfully authentic throughout with a finely delicate grace, as if she could break any moment but smiles through it.  Diane Keen is also brilliant as Judy’s mum Sylvia, making the most of a relatively small role with an incredibly earthy and naturalistic style, particularly excelling later on when berating Judy for living a life of servitude to a man and going against everything that her generation fought for.  Strong support also comes from Cassie Bradley’s chatterbox friend Fran, and Neil McDermott as the husband slowly realising his home life isn’t as perfect as the illusion seems.

‘Home I’m Darling’ shines a light on the impossible standards that previous generations were made to feel they had to live up to, and explores how identity links to happiness.  More “dramedy” than comedy, it’s a brilliantly watchable character study and a warning on the dangers of nostalgia.  A fantastic leading turn from Ransom ensures a bittersweet but rewarding night out.

‘Home, I’m Darling’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 6th May 2023 before concluding its UK tour next week in Canterbury.

Performance runtime 2 hours 20 minutes including interval

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