Thursday, 2 August 2018

Theatre review: Home, I'm Darling

Laura Wade’s new play opens with a cheesy domestic scene straight out of a 1950s sitcom, as perfectly-coiffed housewife Judy (Future Dame Katherine Parkinson) floats around her kitchen making breakfast for her estate agent husband Johnny (Richard Harrington,) making sure he’s got everything ready so he’s not late for work. But before she can get on with the cleaning and tidying she needs to look up a couple of housekeeping tips on the internet, because Home, I’m Darling takes place in the present day. Having met through their shared love of all things ‘50s, the couple have decked out their house in authentic period designs and goods – even if that means a fridge that only works when it feels like it – decanting all their groceries into period-appropriate containers and, when Judy was made redundant three years ago, decided to take the experiment further by living their daily lives as if it was sixty years earlier, right down to the traditional gender roles.

With this arrangement seeming to absolve Johnny of all responsibilities around the house so he can get waited on hand and foot, everyone assumes he was behind the extreme lifestyle makeover, but things are more complicated than that.

Raised in a commune by her feminist mother Sylvia (Sian Thomas,) who’s horrified at the backward steps she sees her daughter taking, Judy has rebelled against modern expectations of her and does in fact seem to be genuinely quite prudish, finding comfort in her permanent retreat into the past (despite needing the internet to source authentic goods, she even seems to have retreated from the outside world as much as humanly possible, being surprised when the conversation turns to Cuba to discover Fidel Castro died eighteen months earlier.) Presenting an image of perfect happiness to fellow retro enthusiasts Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay) and encouraging them to follow her lead, she’s hiding financial problems from Johnny that threaten their lifestyle, and is tying herself in knots trying to keep their bubble from bursting.

There’s much to enjoy in Tamara Harvey’s production (not least of all Parkinson's already-legendary collection of cocktail frocks) but the venue isn’t among the highlights unless, I assume, you’re sitting in the pit or central gallery seats. It’s an ongoing complaint that when the Cottesloe regenerated into the Dorfman its sightlines became terrible, but Anna Fleischle’s set, fitting though it is for the play, is a terrible match to the venue. A giant pastel dollhouse, it comes complete with roof and inner walls meaning that, from the gallery seats, already restricted views become that much worse as only downstage is really visible –from the audience right side seats, the kitchen is almost entirely blocked, and given the subject matter that means a lot of scenes where it’s a radio play. The show is a co-production with Theatr Clwyd and arrives in London after a tour, but it was always known that this was going to be the venue so there isn’t really an excuse for the design to actively cut off so much of the audience.

At least there’s a lot of strong dialogue in Wade’s play that makes the radio play entertaining, plenty of funny lines even as the dark undertone of Judy’s brightly coloured life starts to become apparent. Not having been alive in the 1950s, Judy is just creating a facsimile of them, and when they invite Johnny’s boss back for cocktails Alex (Sara Gregory) pointing out that the period wasn’t so nice and welcoming if you were black, gay or disabled is met with the same flinch that greets references to vulvas. It’s an early indication that Judy’s 1950s are a sanitised version of what she wants them to be rather than a real attempt at an accurate recreation, and a highlight is when Sylvia finally snaps with impatience and lists her own memories of growing up in a cold, grey, bland decade with a mother afraid of yoghurt. The play put me in mind of the Welsh word hiraeth, especially when defined as “homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, or for a home which may have never been,” which seems a fair description of how Judy feels about the ‘50s.

Inevitably Home, I’m Darling has an element of looking into where feminism is in the present day, and how far we can accept Judy’s assertion that choosing this life for herself is her own kind of feminist act. It also touches on how far gender politics has really moved on in six decades in the context of #MeToo. But with a central performance both witty and quietly sad from Parkinson, it’s ultimately really a very personal story of a woman who’s made a safe space for herself and found herself trapped in it. The ending’s a bit too neat but overall this once again continues the Dorfman’s run of most consistently providing the National’s best shows – if only they were visible to the naked eye.

Home, I’m Darling by Laura Wade is booking until the 5th of September at the National Theatre’s Dorfman (returns, rush and day tickets only.)

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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