Home, I’m Darling at the National Theatre: ‘an arch reminder of our tendency to simplify the past’
A joint collaboration between the National Theatre and Theatre Clwyd, Home, I’m Darling presents a modern woman with the sensibility of a 1950s housewife. Anthony Walker-Cook argues this impressive new play implies the impossibility of the two.
As the façade of the 1950s cracks and its gleam fades in Home, I’m Darling, Sian Thomas’ Sylvia offers some harsh words to her daughter Judy (Katherine Parkinson): ‘This gingham paradise you’ve made for yourself – you know it’s not real, don’t you? The fifties didn’t even look like this in the fifties. You’re living in a cartoon.’ Amidst a play full of witticisms, clever juxtapositions and impeccable design, Sylvia’s speech about the harsh realities of the 1950s stands out as an arch reminder of our tendency in the present to embellish the past as (supposedly) simpler times.
Laura Wade’s new play Home, I’m Darling in the Dorfman Theatre examines the home of Judy and Johnny (Richard Harrington), who have decided to dress their home (and themselves) in the decor of the 1950s. A fridge that doesn’t work, fluffy dresses, a green living room and pink bathroom all imply the tastes of this couple. Johnny is an estate agent and Judy, once an analyst, is now a stay-at-home wife. Walking into the intimate Dorfman Theatre, their house is on full display, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and toilet all open to the audience. With the impression of a doll’s house and no windows, Anna Fleischle’s design implies that this is a social experiment, with us the audience as the observers, and Wade’s writing seeks to test the boundaries against which this façade can withstand the peculiarities of modern life. As the play begins, ‘Mr. Sandman’ plays as Johnny gets ready and Judy puts the finishing touches on his breakfast, but the kettle uncomfortably screeches just as the music fades. This subtle dissonance remains throughout the play.
Wade wonderfully juxtaposes the values and aesthetics of the 1950s with those of today. Parkinson is painfully restrained by the façade of domesticity and, as the play continues, her looks and cracking voice demonstrate the emotional toll this life is having on her and her marriage. Having given up her job, the financial pressures to maintain the house have fallen on Johnny, who is dealing with a new boss, Alex (Sara Gregory). Harrington meanwhile first finds the lifestyle enjoyable but eventually restrictive and limiting, with a repressed anger that underlies the depiction of masculinity implied by Sylvia’s speech. Home, I’m Darling steadily unravels the series of unsaid truths hidden by the couple: Johnny never told his wife his new boss is female, and Judy never told her husband of the financial demons that threaten the homely bliss the two supposedly enjoy. Certainly, this ‘Weird little hobby’ quickly reveals Sylvia’s warning to be true.
The other couple in Home, I’m Darling is Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay). Fran is initiated on her own course to become a household wife, whilst in what some might call an over-packed second half, it is revealed Marcus has been accused of sexual harassment, offering the opportunity for Judy, within the persona of a 1950s housewife, to ask ‘What’s happened to us if you can’t put your arm around someone’s shoulders without them crying assault?’ Yet, with Tamara Harvey’s direction, Wade’s writing is a constant balance, and Judy’s question is soon undone by Sylvia’s account of sexual harassment during the 1950s. Though the second half can feel like ticking off the background characters, each serves a separate purpose to the intent of Home, I’m Darling: that is, to set up some scenario where the 1950s feels attractive and to then slowly unravel it. Across these characters, whether it be Alex’s youthful vigour and success, Marcus’ constant checking his phone for facts or the lived experience of Sylvia, all the performances are well acted.
As Judy offers the mentality of ‘Old ways are the best’, within the next second she posits that the way to learn the household tips are ‘all there on the internet, all the hints and tips.’ Parkinson’s slow revelation that the 1950s are not the utopia she has thought since childhood alongside the disintegration of her marriage does not leave her screaming and crying, but actually suffering in silence, her pain indicated by a demure quiet. Home, I’m Darling offers a wonderful cross-examination of how we can attempt to imprint the past on the present to escape the strict ties of contemporary life. ‘I just don’t think I’ve got domestic goddess in me’ Fran states at the beginning of the play. This ‘gingham paradise’, Wade suggests, is no longer appropriate for the modern couple.
Home, I’m Darling is playing in the Dorfman Theatre until the 5th September, 2018. Additional tickets for sold-out performances are available through Friday Rush and Day Tickets.