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