Recipe For a Perfect Wife – Charing Cross Theatre
Writer: Christina McCulloch
Director: Nadia Papachronopoulous
Reviewer: Hattie Williams
It is England, 1956, and a new show ‘Britain’s Best Housewife’ is about to be televised, live before a studio audience. Matt Houlihan plays Berty Baxter, the tedious host whose weak flirtations with the five contesting wives and a trio of tuneful assistants arouses the jealousy and bitterness of wife Betty (Antonia Reid). The surface of strained smiles and feigned affection is the root of the play’s dark comedy that is to reveal the misery of unbalanced marriages.
A Recipe For a Perfect Wife satirises the expectation of women in post-war society as the wives’ devotion to home and husband disintegrates into a distraction from their own regret and unhappiness, with smiles – all smoke and mirrors – hiding their husband’s affairs and waning affections. After a ‘sold out run’ at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, the number of empty seats in the play’s follow up venue, Charing Cross Theatre, was ominous but the sustained atmosphere, light-hearted and friendly, prevailed. The direction of Nadia Papachronopoulous was simple but effective, merging the dynamics of the quiz talent show and suspending this camp visage in abrupt freeze frames that give way to deeply personal monologues.
The smooth harmonies of The Chordettes greet the audience, creating an illusion of the era sustained by the similarly lovely ladies Kitty, Mary and Violet, played by Kate Collinson, Kate Thomas and Harrie Hayes. Kitty, who sustains a superbly witty performance throughout, explains with sweet enthusiasm the alien etiquette of broadcasting to the audience before leading her trio in the first song of the night. Writer, Christina McCulloch effectively replicates the wonderful awkwardness of early advertising by creating jingles from the surprising shallow lyrics of popular contemporary tunes. Jule Styne’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend reminds the women that, ‘Men grow cold as girls grow old,/And we all lose our charms in the end’.
The habits and mannerisms of 1950’s entertainment are amusingly accurate but the production, though just 65 minutes long, struggled to sustain the laughs. The play was easy to watch and entertaining, certainly, but this playfulness at times possessed a distinct air of amateurism in its execution. The performance was less than polished and the comedy was more pantomimic than charming with its tiresome innuendos. I was promised a show with ‘lashings of fun and baked to please’ but the sweetness of satire and song soon became sickly and the product, as with the elocution of the Queen’s English, was overdone.