By Adam Rafferty
Modern society often fetishises life in the 1950s with pictures of post-war domestic bliss. Things seemed simpler and therefore easier back then didn’t they? Certainly Judy and Johnny think so. They’ve taken their passions for 50s architecture, design and swing dancing one step further by ‘living the dream’ as a one income family, leaving Johnny (Toby Truslove) to bring home the bacon as a real estate valuer, while Judy (Nikki Shiels) works full time as a housewife. Just like the veneer on a laminated credenza, after a while the cracks start to show.
The Melbourne Theatre Company have spared no expense bringing English playwright, Laura Wade’s 2018 script to life. An impressive two storey set design by Renée Mulder presents the kind of perfectly kitsch 50s home in all its wallpapered glory. It’s awash with colour, from the pretty in pink laminex kitchen to the powder blue bathroom tiles, and when combined with Mulder’s delightful costume designs, it’s not hard to see why Judy and Johnny are so attracted to the era. Living like Ozzie and Harriet seems to suit them down to the ground, but it’s neither the way a British home truly looked in the 1950s nor a way of living that contemporary society looks on without some judgement, and for good reason.
The couple’s close friends Fran (Susie Youssef) and Marcus (Peter Paltos) share their love of 1950s style and swing dancing but find it harder to live by Judy’s hard-core abidance of traditional gender roles. As a feminist, her mother Sylvia (Jane Turner) can’t believe her daughter has chosen such a submissive lifestyle for herself. Yet it’s actually Johnny who’s the more passive player in this fantasy for two, an idea largely concocted by Judy. He enjoys their domestic bliss, but is finding it difficult to justify to the outside world when he goes to work. He has a new boss, Alex (Izabella Yena) – a woman, much to Judy’s chagrin – and an opportunity to secure a promotion. So in perfectly 50’s style, Judy insists they have Alex over for cocktails in order to impress, without considering what a modern career woman’s take on their arrangement will be.
Wade’s premise is quite a unique one, and provides an intriguing new facet through which to view modern feminism. It’s not hard to see why both the MTC and Sydney Theatre Company snapped up the rights to stage their own productions this year. This is intriguing storytelling that not only provides a solid structure for its characters’ motivations but also challenges expectations and heads in unexpected directions. It’s hard to see how Wade’s plot has any chance of resolving itself satisfactorily and yet it does.
Director Sarah Goodes has created a production that floats across the stage like a pair of waltzing sweethearts, choreographing much of Shiels’ movement as she ‘makes house’ like Snow White on crack. One almost expects to see animated birds fluttering down to sit on Judy’s shoulder. The intensity with which Shiels imbues her character is quite extraordinary, ramping up as Judy’s world starts to crumble around her. It’s a powerhouse performance well deserving of a solo bow.
The supporting cast are all solid. Truslove ensures quite excellently that Johnny neither comes off as a chauvinist, nor a nebbish. Whereas Paltos has the creepy opportunity to highlight Marcus’ sexist under side and effectively demonstrate why the ‘good old days’ weren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Youssef as Fran gives an admirably subtle performance in supporting Judy’s ideals while not being entirely convinced by her personal strictures. In contrast Yena’s boss character does no eye-rolling and is wonderfully ‘normal’ amongst Judy and Johnny’s fantasia. Turner’s character of Sylvia is perhaps most pivotal in explaining Judy’s psychology and in providing the reasoning to her daughter as to why she needs to reassess her lifestyle, delivered through an excellent monologue that deserves more emotional conviction than she’s providing.
The technical aspects of this production are all excellent, with particular kudos going to Jethro Woodward’s excellent use of 195’s music and filmic underscores that often make the story feel like a Hitchcock thriller. There’s also more than a little swing dancing in this production, choreographed with Arthur Murray style by Steven Grace.
It’s possible that modern feminists may find the attitudes of this production’s leading lady frustrating or glib in their outcome, yet this is actually a near perfect cautionary tale. If modern politics are proof of anything it’s that societal ‘norms’ can swing back and forth with great ferocity. The last thing we should do is take for granted tomorrow the advancements we make today.
Images: Jeff Busby