Home, I’m Darling
National Theatre and Theatre Clwyd co-production
Duke of York’s Theatre
Were gender politics ever as much fun as in Laura Wade’s genial yet barbed Home, I’m Darling? A playlist soundtrack (Tom Gibbons sound design) that sets the mood, heads jiggling, and tracks the cracks in a faux 'fifties lifestyle; quality bopping (choreography by Charlotte Broom of HeadSpaceDance and formerly dancer with Northern and Cullberg Ballet Companies); a fabulous set from Anna Fleischle; tight direction from Tamara Harvey; and performances that sparkle with knowing wit and charm under Lucy Carter’s stylish Hitchcockian lighting.
Why aren’t we dancing in the aisles? Lucky Hywel Morgan and Siubhan Harrison as Marcus and Fran, friends of and foils for the lead protagonists, jive the night away, covering scene changes with their polished moves. Nostalgia and retro-fashion (there are casual pokes at people sucking on biros—vaping—instead of those wonderful cigarettes) are taken down with dry irony (“The Great Pretender” one of the song tracks).
A doll’s house set in Mad Men promotional style, a 'fifties Ideal Homes showroom: sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom (pink flamingos shower curtain) with stairs dissecting. In walks jaunty Judy in candy-striped full-skirted dress and heels, the perfect Stepford Wives hostess doll and model 'fifties housewife. Katherine Parkinson’s careful carriage of her body is meticulously choreographed for that robotic spring in her step as she skips and prances doing her housework, making breakfast. Her clothes changes are a fashion parade for the fashionistas in the audience, and I spot a few.
But, surely Kay Smallshaw’s 1949 How to Run Your Home Without Help (quoted in the programme notes with other similar cleaning tips and gems), which Judy produces out of her bag, can only engender ribald laughter in our #MeToo world. What is more, Judy’s mother, Sylvia, was a 'seventies first wave feminist. And look what she has produced… an offspring who has taken to living in one of those American period picture postcards extolling the virtues of being a good wife and mother. It’s when she pulls out a laptop that we realize she is living a fiction, a soap opera, of her own making.
Everything, down to the money-draining fridge, in the immaculate house (how do you get those taps so shiny, gets a laugh…) is authentic period but sourced on eBay. Even the food is 'fifties, no teabags (none before 1953, did you know that?), milk poured from carton to proper milk bottle, all packets emptied neatly into canisters. Made redundant, Judy decided to be a textbook wife and housewife. You’d think husband Johnny (Richard Harrington) would love it: slippers, cocktail and dinner ready for him, the breadwinner. But not all is at it seems.
Her ‘happy’ life is straining at the seams. He doesn't get his promotion: Alex (gender-free name), his female boss (Sara Gregory), obviously thinks they are a bit eccentric if not odd, and he maybe too complacent. Too infantilized this male privileged life. They may have to sell the house. Unless she goes back to a job—she used to earn more than he. Is it impossible to live on one salary these days? And he would like to cook for her: he used to be a better cook in any case. Can they compromise?
But the point Wade is making, I think, is that being a housewife is a job, which it is, a stressful job for some. Judy is a feminist, she says. Why is her housework not valued or paid, for that matter? Is it because men don't do it? It’s an old argument, as is how can a feminist allow another woman to clean for her, do the drudgery?
Female solidarity and feminism takes many forms. Exposing retrograde sexist thinking, as we see in Marcus’s recent problem with over-friendliness: what’s wrong with hugging and being touchy-feely, patting women on the bottom, he asks? If he needs to ask… Can Wade be sure she is preaching to the converted? These are not new issues, but part of the ongoing conversation, engagingly and humorously put.
Is it about self worth? How can you be tired, you do nothing all day… O-oh… that gets a reaction... this to a woman who is so committed to keeping the house spic and span neat neat neat—out comes the carpet sweeper at the drop of a crumb. Is it a cover-up for psychological problems? She fancies being a secretary, another subservient role. Is it perversely about having control?
Is it a reaction to her mother’s core beliefs and life—her patient mother Sylvia (Susan Brown understatedly superb) tells her that the 'fifties in Britain were not as she thinks—not kinder, but dull, cold (no central heating) and grey with bomb holes still around—“this is a cartoon”. “This is not what we fought for”. There was no abortion, no contraception, and your husband had a legal right “to fuck you” gets a big response from the audience.
A vision of the ‘perfect’ 'fifties housewife—read Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson and see the myth demolished—as it is here, slowly, sympathetically, piquantly. Can a fantasy life enhance or destroy a marriage, especially if it is a one-sided fixation? My question is how come she doesn't get bored with the Sisyphean nature of housework? Is she OCD? And they have no children—now that would put a spanner into this well-ordered lifestyle.
Home, I’m Darling premièred in the Emlyn Williams Theatre at Theatr Clwyd on 3 July 2018, playing a sold-out run before transferring to the Dorfman Theatre on 24 July where it also sold out. After this West End run, it will tour the Theatre Royal Bath and The Lowry, Salford before returning to Theatr Clwyd. Not to be missed.
Reviewer: Vera Liber