In the mid-1960’s, US toy company Topper Toys created a popular brand, The Suzy Homemaker toy line, which provided realistic little ovens, vacuum cleaners, food mixers and other domestic appliance devises, many of which could actually function. They were designed to help prepare young girls for the duties expected of them as dutiful perfect little (Stepford?) house wives. They were sold to conservative parents to gift to their daughters in defiance of the emancipation, birth control, liberation and free love movements dominating the era, and ran almost in parallel to the hippy counterculture of the time. The toys are still marketed, though largely for nostalgia reasons, and promoted in a much more tongue in cheek way than on their original launch.
The promotion led to a social backlash, as women seen as prim, proper, subservient unquestioning obedient domesticated housewives were referred to perjoratively and derogatively as living incarnations of ‘Suzy Homemaker’ themselves.
Cut to Preston, 2022, and a fantastic five star dialogue-free ballet performance at The New Contintal bar by Erica Mulkern in the guise of a woman living out life as a perfect ‘Suzy Homemaker’ life with terrible consequences.
This Suzy’s world seems out of touch with the 60’s, and in fact the set, and Suzy’s outfit seem terribly austere, conservative late 1950’s. There is a bakelite radio set that our Suzy listens to as she goes about her day.
The only other performer, playing Suzy’s husband gives a rather wooden performance, not from bad acting, but because he is literally a mop given an inverted smile and a neck tie. This makes Suzie’s efforts to make him happy doomed to fail from the outset. She makes cakes, she has a child (played by a rolling pin), she cleans and dusts, panicking if she sees a bit she missed, but her indifferent spouse just sits there, incapable of offering assistance or words of encouragement or concern. It actually makes him frightfully credible. Erica’s imaginative use and repurposing of props actually echoes the the function of the Suzy toys themselves (none of which appear on the set).
Suzie’s struggle to keep things perfect in her home takes its toll, and her dance becomes more strained and frantic. Occasionally the classical music danced to gives way to snippets of news or lines from radio/TV dramas. In one chilling release, a husband announces that he has just arranged with her boss for his wife to get fired from her job so she can work full time as his wife (slave).
Suzie gets pregnant again, represented simply by Erica putting her kitchen pinny up her top, only for it to slip out blood stained to depict a miscarriage in the play’s most shattering and emotionally shocking sequence. She is soon back to domestic servitude as if nothing ever happened, but she and the audience know only too well that it did.
The music is used extremely effectively throughout, often discordantly. Erica isn’t released or liberated by the score, but trapped by it, like a puppet dragged around by the chords. At times she reels as if suffering both internal mental conflict and throws herself to the floor as if subjected to violent domestic abuse. Ravel’s Bolero (the show’s most dominant and instantly recognizable music) is a piece usually associated with passion, and increasing love (hence its use by Torville & Dean and in the Bo Derek / Dudley Moore film 10). Here the music is used quite menacingly. Suzy tries removing her wedding ring, as if contemplating finally leaving her subjugating oppressive marriage, but the music strikes a new crescendo and she finds herself dragged helplessly round the house by it again as her husband simply sits there, no more supportive than a wooden pole in a necktie.
A highly innovative dance, open to multiple interpretations, none of which show the Suzy Homemaker lifestyle in a positive light. The Fringe festival has shown us comedy, science fiction, grief, history, and much more. This was the closest it has come to depicting outright horror, and all the more so for the horror having been all too real for many women trapped in cold, loveless relationships, where they are expected to bake, clean, and look pretty and unquestioningly obedient to the master of the house, cut off from the times and exciting World beyond the kitchen that is no better than a prison cell.
Erica Mulkern will undoubtedly go on to greatness in performance. Her co-star’s future seems less certain. An incredible, unforgettable experience.
Feature on the Suzy Homemaker ‘toy’ line https://clickamericana.com/toys-and-games/who-is-suzy-homemaker-1966
A genuine Suzy Homemaker TV Ad https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh4OXJC8ebo
Short dance film on Suzy Homemaker made by Erica Mulkern https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf9EibJpm8s
A recording of Ravel’s Bolero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r30D3SW4OVw
Thanks once again to Lancashire Arts, Garry Cook, The Continental, and friends I chatted to pre-and post show too.