“Are you happy, darling?” asks Judy as her husband Johnny tucks into an egg she has boiled and placed before him on the gingham clothed table in their lemon yellow kitchen. “Oh yes, terribly,” he replies, and for the first ten minutes or so of Laura Wade's smash hit play, which originated at Theatr Clwyd and is now in the West End after a sold-out run at the National Theatre, you fully believe that this eccentric couple are both, indeed, “disgracefully” content.
Eccentric, though, isn't quite right. Delusional, maybe. The cleverness of Home, I'm Darling is the way it explores the fine line between the two. For 38-year-old Judy has given up a high-flying career in finance to indulge an obsession with the 1950s that goes way beyond an aesthetic devotion to laminated work tops and flared skirts. She now cheerfully spends her days in their dinky, retrofitted house baking cakes, dusting under the sink and polishing the taps with lemon juice. “The old ways are the best!” Every night when Johnny, an estate agent and fellow 50s enthusiast, arrives home from work, she greets him with fresh lipstick, a freshly made cocktail and the scent of dinner cooking in the oven. Oh yes, she's very happy indeed.
Wade's boisterously witty previous play The Watsons was both a Pirandello-style deconstruction of Jane Austen's unfinished novel and an astute commentary on the ways in which we construct stories about women. Here she has seized on an equally fertile setup through which to take apart what is actually meant when people talk about choice. It's my choice, Judy insists petulantly to her exasperated mother – a second-wave feminist who brought up Judy in an all-female commune and hauled her out on protest marches. Yes, but you are living inside a system designed by men, her mum (Susan Brown, brilliant) points out. And anyway, she continues, the 1950s were “shit.” They were only good for privileged white men.
That supremely talented comic actress Katherine Parkinson is both madly funny and painfully poignant as Judy, making it impossible to dismiss Judy's extreme lifestyle decision as simply outright bonkers. Her yearning for control and order and for what she considers a simpler, more authentic way of life comes across as an almost understandable reaction against both an unusual, fatherless childhood and today's throwaway, consumerist culture. Her desire to wait on Richard Harrington's affable Johnny (who is starting to harbour doubts about his wife's decision to stay at home) is convincingly presented as an act of love.
And yet what started out as a well-intentioned pitch to escape the rat race has evolved into a suffocating trap. Judy's militant approach is, on a practical level, a nightmare. The 1950s fridge keeps breaking down, as does Johnny's vintage car, which may explain why he is struggling to sell any houses. Through the merest shift in facial expression and vocal pitch, Parkinson registers Judy's clenching panic when she realises not only that their carefully assembled utopia is falling apart but that she has boxed herself into a corner whereby she has no power. Johnny isn't earning enough money to keep them both afloat, but rather than admit she might need to go back to work she secretly plunders her savings. When a chance remark from a friend seeds the thought that Johnny might be having an affair with his boss, her response is to humiliatingly beg that boss not to take him away from her.
Wade is sharp on our fetish for nostalgia – our assumption that just because the frocks are pretty and we all love a cupcake, life for women in post-war England had the same sparkle as a freshly scrubbed sink in a cleaning products advert. To some extent this is a play about authenticity – not just whether a house full of vintage items sourced from Ebay is more 1950s than the reality ever was, but about what it means to live in ways that are properly authentic rather than in adherence to a culturally constructed narrative or fantasy. But it's also a warning against a complacent rejection of feminist achievements. Tamara Harvey's persistently entertaining production, replete with a jive-dancing couple who accompany each set change, makes this visually very clear: Anna Fleischle's set design is both a perky suburban temple to 1950s kitsch – and an eerie modern incarnation of Nora Helmer's doll's house.