‚ÄúHave you seen this beautiful day?‚ÄĚ trills Judy, as she bustles, petticoats a-swishing, round her bijou kitchen, brewing tea and buttering toast. ‚ÄúHeavenly,‚ÄĚ murmurs husband Johnny, tucking into his perfectly boiled egg. They are the very picture of 1950s wedded bliss ‚ÄĒ they could have stepped right out of a Good Housekeeping advertisement for baking powder. It‚Äôs only once Judy (Katherine Parkinson) has waved Johnny (Richard Harrington) off for work and furtively retrieves a MacBook from the kitchen table drawer that we realise all is not quite what it seems.
In one sense, Laura Wade‚Äôs funny, ingenious new play (at the National‚Äôs Dorfman theatre) is a response to Ibsen‚Äôs A Doll‚Äôs House. Where Nora finally slammed the door on domesticity, Judy, a former finance worker, has voluntarily returned, wrapping herself up in 1950s housewifery. She‚Äôs fabulously good at it: her house sparkles, she looks angelic in her swing skirts and her cheese straws are tremendous. Her friend Fran (Kathryn Drysdale), who is into the retro look in a more semi-detached way, can only follow in her wake. ‚ÄúLongest recipe I used this week was ‚ÄėPierce film lid‚Äô,‚ÄĚ she sighs. But, as cracks begin to show in the idyll, Judy starts to realise that polished taps are no substitute for financial independence
Wade‚Äôs script, like Judy‚Äôs lifestyle, is precariously balanced ‚ÄĒ it takes real skill to maintain the tart surface humour and sharp detail, while gradually allowing the drama‚Äôs serious concerns to roll out. She achieves it beautifully, aided by Tamara Harvey‚Äôs funny, tightly observed staging (a co-production with Theatr Clwyd) on Anna Fleischle‚Äôs delightfully precise set. For this playful comedy takes the current social and political upsurge in nostalgia ‚ÄĒ vintage frocks, baking programmes, blue passports ‚ÄĒ and extrapolates, building a cheesy version of the past that has all of the prettiness and none of the prejudice. ‚ÄúThe Fifties didn‚Äôt even look like this in the Fifties,‚ÄĚ objects Judy‚Äôs staunchly feminist mother (a wonderfully crisp Sian Thomas), who views with undisguised alarm her daughter‚Äôs rejection of everything her generation fought for.
Wade gradually broadens the enquiry into the illusion of perfection more generally and considers what drives the urge to escape into a past that never existed. A sexual harassment sub-plot feels a bit clumsy, but this is an astute, highly original and subtly topical play about choice, about gender politics and about the dangers of selling fantasy realities. And Parkinson is superb as Judy, quiet desperation slowly bubbling up under her perky smile, pink cardigan and pearls.
To September 5, nationaltheatre.org.uk