For Johnny (Toby Truslove) and Judy, the decision to live in the ’50s seems at first a harmless eccentricity – a form of marital cosplay that embraces a love of period fashion, decor and dancing. They even attend a weekend called Jivestock with friends Marcus (Peter Paltos) and Fran (Susie Youssef) and scores of other ’50s enthusiasts.
With only one income, of course, the couple is relying on Johnny getting a promotion at his real estate agency to fund their lifestyle. Will his female boss Alex (Izabella Yena) prove an unlikely ally or a romantic rival to Judy? And is there any way to keep the gingham dresses and superior housekeeping, without the regressive sexual politics of the 1950s leaping from the shadows?
Sarah Goodes’ production sports impressive design. In a nod to Ibsen, the set resembles a monumental doll’s house, with meticulous costuming and cinematic sound design riffing off ’50s styles and tropes to augment the period atmosphere.
Just as impressive are the performances, which achieve an understated style of British comedy Australian theatre often struggles with.
Shiels is a born actor with the same kind of star quality as Nicole Kidman. She inhabits an unstable, wonderfully neurotic charisma as Judy, whose nostalgia for a time she never knew builds into a kind of identity crisis, an obsessive fantasy with an air of desperation about it.
Spiky mother-daughter exchanges with Jane Turner – playing the voice of feminism (and reason) with an utterly straight bat – are a highlight. And the central relationship with Truslove has a credible trajectory that illuminates, with surprising nuance, the vagaries and pressures of living in the past as a refuge from the present.
The supporting cast is crisp, handling the comedy of manners and mortification without milking anything. And Youssef and Paltos are especially droll.
But the night belongs to Nikki Shiels. Her performance has a sophisticated ironic sheen that forestalls easy judgment, and I was reminded that she once gave a tour de force as the most famous trapped housewife in drama, Nora Helmer from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in a Daniel Schlusser production that shivered between the work’s two endings – one where Nora leaves her marriage and one where she dutifully stays.
The play isn’t without flaw: it loses tone in the second half, some crucial psychodynamics in the onstage marriage remain hazy, and there’s a pat, sentimental ending. Yet it remains solid, entertaining commercial comedy, exploring the realities and fantasies of gender in a way that will make you laugh, even as it challenges your prejudices.