Home, I’m Darling – National Theatre, London

Writer: Laura Wade

Director: Tamara Harvey

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

At a time when our national future has never been more uncertain, its unsurprising that we seek refuge in a more comforting vision of our past. So much of British identity is bound up with the romanticised history of the nation, its Kings and Queens, the Empire and military victories, but we forget that for the majority the past wasn’t a nice place to be. Laura Wade’s wonderful new play Home, I’m Darlingexamines this need to shut ourselves off from the real world, and indulge our fantasies of simpler, safer time.

Judy and Johnny live in a 50s-style house, wear 50s clothes and have adopted traditionally gendered roles. Johnny is the breadwinner who comes home every day to find his slippers waiting, dinner on the table and his perfect housewife at the door with a cocktail. But this is the 1950s that never was, because its really the 2010s, and however much they try modern life keeps pushing its way in. When a new boss arrives at Johnny’s office, university-educated Judy finds herself under greater pressure to justify her choices, can she really be happy to stay at home?

While Wade’s play clearly speaks to the events of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it deals with something much more fundamental than that, dramatizing an issue that has been at the heart of feminist debate for decades between working women and those who choose to be a wife and mother. The question of value and status runs through Home, I’m Darling, but Wade forces us to wonder if personal satisfaction and preference is the only thing that matters.

The character of Judy could have been laughable, a silly woman in love with fancy dress and a vision of the past learned from popular culture. As her mother, Sylvia scathingly states “the 50s didn’t even look like this in the 50s, you’re living in a cartoon… being nostalgic when you weren’t even there.” Yet Wade carefully ensures that while Judy suffers for her choices, she’s never ridiculous, the audience is allowed to empathise with her desire to create something controllable and perfect even when that desire becomes desperate and delusional.

There are moments of change when the lives of the characters are tipped off their axis, but what Wade and director Tamara Harvey do best is to show this image of domestic harmony slowly fracture. It begins with a look out of place, a swear word from a neighbour sullying the purity of Judy’s home, but the poison spreads and soon reality comes crashing in. This shift is so well managed by Harvey, showing the audience how hollow Judy and Johnny’s fantasy lifestyle is when seen from another angle.

Katherine Parkinson as Judy has never been better, and every moment of the performance is a joy. She absolutely embodies the 50s ideal, walking with a straight-calved elegance, almost like a doll with an exaggerated swing of the hips that swirls the skirt every time she turns, as the perfect 50s goddess would do. Yet Judy’s brittle emotion is always visible, deliberately hiding in this warped fantasy, actively detached from political events and refusing to even hear negative stories. Parkinson is reacting all the time, using subtle glances or barely controlled tears as Judy finds it harder and harder to maintain the act, knowing deep down that her twenty-first century morality can never be entirely quelled even when she’s decanting milk from a plastic bottle into a traditional glass container.

Equally impressive is Richard Harrington as Johnny, also struggling to fulfill a traditional role as man of the house. Johnny is more in the world than his wife and starts to feel the ridiculousness of their lifestyle much sooner. It starts to feel too much like a “performance” he claims, which Harrington uses to reveal the awkwardness Johnny feels in company aware of the effect it has beyond the home.

There secondary characters could be fleshed-out a little more, and while they serve as interesting counterpoints to the central couple they never feel quite real enough. Kathryn Drysdale’s Fran and Barnaby Kay’s Marcus have found a different way to keep the 50s in their relationship without devoting themselves to it. Yet, the subplot with Marcus feels a little forced while Judy’s mother Sylvia (Sian Thomas) has a useful rant about the deprivation of prejudice of the real 1950s but it isn’t as well sewn into the plot as it could be.

You can’t go wrong with an Anna Fleischle set and this dolls-house-like creation is almost a character in its own right. A whole house has been done before of course – An Inspector Callsmost famously, also A Small Family Businessat the National a few years ago – but this is still a visual delight, beautifully decorated in period style and the essence of the debate on whether women should be allowed to be happy at home. Ultimately the choice is ours, but Wade warns that nostalgia can only keep you warm for so long, we have to find a balance with the real world as well.

Runs Until 5 September 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. No, sorry. As I said under the review of this play at Theatr Clwyd: what serious points are being made here? That, unless you are very rich, you can’t turn your hobby into your lifestyle? This is not about someone choosing to be a wife and a mother in any real sense. If it were, Judy might be the ideal person to do it – after all she is economically astute, anti-waste, grows her own vegetables and cooks meals from scratch (though how well we’re never entirely sure). Where some parents who lack these skills and attitudes might struggle with one of them doing full-time housekeeping instead of bringing in a wage, Judy’s problem is a stubborn attachment to inessentials like a car and household appliances that need frequent and costly maintenance. I wondered whether this preoccupation was a metaphor for drug dependency or some such reaction to the pressures of life but in the end concluded it was simply a conceit that doesn’t work.

    The story has similarities to A Doll’s House with Judy using money obtained on her own account to pad out the budget and concealing the truth about their financial situation ostensibly to spare Johnny’s feelings. But why would a feminist playwright reference ADH but replace the resourceful, pragmatic Norah with a weak character? While Judy may not be ridiculous in herself, her behaviour is. It’s not only her mother who says so: Alex, while desperately trying to pay her compliments, clearly can’t wait to escape her company; their best friends are distancing themselves from her obsessive commitment to the lifestyle (even if Marcus, possibly with ulterior motives, toys with the idea of keeping Fran as a pet housewife – and, perhaps, Judy as a sexy secretary); and Johnny himself has serious concerns about the way they are seen by the outside world. The only way we know that Judy isn’t fundamentally ridiculous is that she eventually comes to her senses – and that, dramatically, is a bit of a cop-out.

    For me, the most significant feature of this story is that it illustrates the way the economic system hijacked the struggle for equality. It matters little to the ruling class whether the housekeeping is the woman’s responsibility, the man’s responsibility or a shared task. What interests them is that they are no longer paying for it via the ‘breadwinner’s wages. It seems likely to me that the biggest obstacle to J&J’s dream life is not that the desire to be a housewife is rooted in ‘internalised misogyny’, or that the 1950s was no golden age or that Johnny has to go out and work with that vulgar 21st century crowd – it’s that it’s hugely more difficult to maintain a socially acceptable household on a single salary in 2018 than it was in 1958.

    Maybe I’m looking at it from a blinkered male perspective but the character of Judy’s mother, Sylvia, seems a rather critical caricature of late 20th century feminism. There’s her sectarian assumption that Judy’s choice must have been made under Johnny’s coaxing – an assumption Wade clearly signals as wrong in the flashback scene where Judy suggests the project and sets about selling the idea to her husband. Sylvia also seems quite sanguine about making personal capital gains from property donated to the feminist community in which Judy was raised. There is a touch of the Edina/Saffron relationship here – not so extreme as Jennifer Saunders’s broad comic invention but similar in an important respect: the picture we get of the overbearing mother goes some way to explain why the daughter’s rejection of the mother’s values extends a long way beyond teenage rebellion.

    Johnny, too, is a strange character if we assume this is in some way a feminist play. I’m the first to complain if presented with a lazy negative male stereotype but Johnny seems to err in the other direction. He’s a bit too much of a sweetheart – easygoing, affectionate, considerate…the list of his virtues is almost endless. His only real failing is that he fancies Alex; and even there, his biggest mistake is being honest with Judy about these feelings (he is so far from acting on them that when Judy disastrously tackles his boss about it it’s very clear that she hadn’t even noticed). I suppose if you wanted to be critical, his flouncing off to join Alex and their workmates in the pub after Judy rejects his advances is a tad insensitive; but he’s surely the most sympathetic character in the play.

    I really don’t see how this can be taken for anything more than a mildly amusing fantasy. If you’re attracted by details of costume and décor that might be a bonus. But a 150 minute piece in which all but two (arguably all but one) characters are sketchily written ciphers surely can’t be described as a ‘wonderful new play’.

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