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Canberra Today 11°/14° | Monday, December 4, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

When the fabulous fifties start to fade

In rehearsal, Karina Hudson as Judy and Thomas May as Johnny. Photo: Alexandra Pelvin

THERE’S something slightly quirky about the title of Canberra Rep’s coming production “Home, I’m Darling”.

It’s Olivier award-winning playwright Laura Wade’s twist on “I’m home, darling,” the familiar strains of the ’50s husband returning to the little wife.

When I talk to director Alexandra Pelvin about her second directorial role for Canberra Rep, she tells me this play could hardly be more up to date.

Strangely enough though, Wade, an important UK playwright, who is also one of the writers and executive producers of the new Disney+ series “Rivals”, spent 10 to 12 years in collaboration with the director and the actor playing the main role in developing this script.

That means, if you consider that the #MeToo movement got going in 2017, she was way ahead of her time in documenting a big social shift. 

She has set her play in 2018, where the main character Judy wants to live in the ’50s, but is trying to make this happen with all the #MeToo stuff happening in the real world.

Here’s the premise of the play. Judy and Johnny are unreconstructed ’50s bobby-soxers who attend events such as “Jivestock” ( think Woodstock). Judy has always loved the idea of the ’50s, ever since watching ’50s movies with her dad.

She dresses in ’50s gear, searching for the idealised beauty of pastel colours and gorgeous frocks, Doris Day and (pre-HIV) Rock Hudson – “Golden dreams of a kinder, gentler place,” Pelvin says.

But, here’s the unusual part, initially it’s Judy who is the family breadwinner managing a staff of six in a finance company. When she’s suddenly made “surplus to requirements”, she comes home and asks Johnny: “What if we lived in the ’50s, I’d stay at home and you’d work?”

Initially, Johnny questions it, but he goes along way with it.

Luckily, there are no kids. Pelvin says that would complicate things for the playwright.

As they say in showbiz: “What could possibly go wrong?” And it does. 

But in the meantime, playwright Wade has had fun examining gender roles in the context of the modern world, where feminists have made massive strides and the quality of life for women has improved.

Johnny works in an estate agency with people who don’t share the ’50s ideals, Judy’s mum is an old-style feminist who marched during the ’70s and ’80s and their friends, Fran and Mark enjoy a bit of a ’50s aesthetic, though she’s a stylist and he works in an ad agency.

Three years later, Johnny isn’t getting enough commissions, the fabulous fifties appliances are breaking down and the retro car is very expensive to maintain with no second income.

Judy hides these facts from Johnny and in Act I, she’s trying to maintain appearances, but in Act II we see what happens when Johnny finds out. 

Pelvin is not about to tell us how it ends, except to say that for some people it’ll be a happy ending and for others, a sad one.

“It is very, very funny,” she says, “but it also hits you where it hurts.”

To a contemporary audience Judy and Johnny will be representatives of people retreating from the world, a very present idea for people coming out of lockdown.

But underneath, there is the theme of finding control in an unpredictable environment. Judy has opted for the ’50s as reliable, but the world proved to be a lot more chaotic. 

The cast, starring Karina Hudson as Judy, was about to get into the theatre when I spoke to Pelvin.

Needless to say, the set and costume departments are having huge fun – watch out for those frocks.

And Pelvin’s been sorting through her dad’s stack of old ’50s records and has found a bit of Louis Prima, Mel Tormé and some Fats Domino, though she won’t tell me what she’s actually using for scene transitions. 

Suffice it to say, there’ll be a lot of laughs and more than a bit of nostalgia. 

“Home, I’m Darling,” Canberra Rep Theatre, June 15 (preview) to July 1.



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Helen Musa

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