Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 13 April 2019
How far would you go to achieve domestic perfection? What even is domestic perfection? Is our happiness shaped by or confounded by traditional gender roles? These are the questions Laura Wade poses in her feminist satire Home, I’m Darling.
Judy (Katherine Parkinson) and Johnny (Richard Harrington) seem to be the epitome of marital bliss – she the doting housewife, while he works to sustain their quaint lifestyle in their immaculate post-war house. Dressed to the nines in an array of gorgeous tea dresses, Judy is always ready with Johnny’s slippers and a cocktail for him at the end of the day, and she lives by the word of ‘How to Run Your Home Without Help’ – a 1940s guide to ideal domesticity.
So far, so archaic. But an early twist in Wade’s play reveals Judy and Johnny to be somewhat of a socio-historic anomaly, living in a 1950s style microcosm slap bang in the middle of the 21st century. They have an Apple MacBook stashed away, yet their authentic 50s fridge doesn’t work; Judy tries to make up for their shortfall in funds since she quit her job by selling her vintage outfits on eBay.
Workplace politics, the necessity for technology and independence, and mounting pressure from a society that’s embraced more liberal views on sex and gender mean that the couple must face the inevitable question of whether the life they have made for themselves is at all sustainable.
Anna Fleischle’s impressive set re-creates an idealised 1950s suburbia, each immaculate room lit by Lucy Carter so as to emphasise the physical and mental compartmentalisation of the couple’s lives. Yet, aesthetically pleasing as it is, I felt that director Tamara Harvey didn’t utilise the space to its best advantage.
The majority of the action takes place in the kitchen and lounge, with incidental scenes ‘upstairs’ as mere tag ons to accompany the excellent playlist of retro classics (Little Richard, Chuck Berry). I am also unsure what thought Harvey/ Sonia Friedman Productions/ the NT have given to transferring the play to this theatre as the sightlines are not great, meaning the pivotal twist in the first scene is lost by a good proportion of the upper circle. In fact, from where we were sat, the majority of the kitchen was obscured.
Production quibbles aside, Wade manages to evoke a sense of romantic nostalgia (not least in the play’s form) while also homing in on the inequalities and less-savoury aspects of the past. Judy takes pride in her housework, and the detailed minutiae of her day demonstrates the workmanship that every house-wife/husband/person undertakes. I think there’s definitely some tract in her assertion that feminism has allowed her to ‘choose’ this lifestyle, but her dedication to the past restricts her relationship with her husband to the point where it becomes obvious that they are merely ‘playing house’. And it’s this pretence that creates a brilliant stroke of discomfort. As Judy’s mother, Sylvia (at this performance played by Jane MacFarlane), says, romanticising a past which in reality was brutal, unfair and impoverished for all but a select few (white, straight, middle-class) is bordering on the offensive – especially when trying to claim supremacy over a still-flawed yet altogether more tolerant modern society.
This discomfort is brought to the fore with Judy’s incomprehensible attitude towards relationships. Her insistence that affairs are fine as long as the other partner never finds out, or her blind defence of her friend Marcus (Hywel Morgan) when he’s accused of sexual harassment, demonstrate a willing naivety which feels almost exploitative to watch. Semi-justification is provided through Judy’s backstory of an unconventional upbringing in a communal collective. But the posited explanation that Judy’s way of thinking is purely down to a teenage-esque rebellion against her righteous mother is a little too pat. I also found the eleventh hour revelation about her father’s misdemeanours lacked punch. But, for the most part, although it initially feels like Wade deliberately uses her characters as toys in a dollhouse, I found myself later coming round to them, understanding their flaws and their reasoning.
In all, Home, I’m Darling raises some important complexities regarding modern attitudes to love, sex, gender, work and leisure, yet Wade doesn’t quite get under the skin of these issues due to the abiding formal aesthetics of the piece.
Home, I’m Darling plays at the Duke of York’s until 13thApril, 2019