FringeReview UK 2018
Home, I’m Darling is Laura Wade’s first play since her magnificent Posh in 2010. Director Tamara Harvey’s worked closely with Wade. The dolls’ house exterior of Anna Flieschle’s set rolls away to an unnervingly-sourced 1950s interior. Brightness is turned up in Lucy Carter’s lighting. Tom Gibbons DJ-ing sound also cunningly matches hit to mood. Charlotte Broom’s choreography punctuates the action with jive routines. A National Theatre co-production with Theatr Clwyd at the Dorfman till September 5th.
Chances are you’ll have made up your mind to see Laura Wade’s first play since her magnificent Posh of 2010. There’s still time. Director Tamara Harvey’s worked so closely with Wade, the author suggests, that it’s collaborative. That’s no more than usual, and this time the play’s central performer Katherine Parkinson has been ‘Judy from the beginning’. All this shows in this National Theatre co-production with Theatr Clwyd at the Dorfman.
When the dolls’ house exterior of Anna Flieschle’s set rolls away it reveals two things: an unnervingly-sourced 1950s interior, and that it is a doll’s house though without children. Parkinson’s Judy is bent on staying inside it. Reversible Ibsen. But its hallucinatory brightness is turned up loud (in Lucy Carter’s lighting too): buttermilk yellow kitchen (down to radio and early fitted cupboards), turquoise lounge with white-striped wallpaper, winged sofas, spindly tables and microwave-sized TV; fuschia-pink bedroom.
So are Parkinson’s gorgeous dresses, striped or self-coloured. Everything, including the dovey dance of ‘I’m taking the top off your egg!’ as Judy clucks around Richard Harrington’s Johnny, seems a tad unreal. Vivid as a screentop saver. So as Johnny departs for his estate agency work it’s no surprise that ideal housewife Judy – whose juddery old fridge and fresh batch marmalade demand full-time supervision – reaches for her laptop.
Indeed it’s her measure of reality, several notched beyond even the ‘reality’ or second lives that partially inspire it (which doesn’t stop this being Wade’s interrogation of just such impulses). Naturally Judy online-sources authentic Fifties gear in her desire to render her life ‘simpler’ but it’s also her way of shifting finances. That’s what Judy’s career was before she took early redundancy three years ago. Indeed at the start of Act Two we do get a flashback of what inspired this couple to retro-fit their lives. Judy’s answering a riven self that Parkinson shivers out in a haunted look. It’s at least in part the hideous rain-pelted commune upbringing Judy endured with her mother Sylvia, but there’s comeback from that quarter.
Wade tests this fantasy every way, allowing each character a generous reveal: it renders Judy both more exposed and more mysterious. There’s Kathryn Drysdale’s cheerfully frazzled Fran who with Chevvy-owning husband Marcus (Barnaby Kay) share their friends’ love for all things Fifties – and in Charlotte Broom’s choreography punctuates the action with jive routines. Tom Gibbons DJ-ing sound also cunningly matches hit to mood and renders something felicitously out-of-period at the end.
They’re all planning a Jivefest weekend with them where hordes of retro-lovers dance the weekend away. But that’s it. What for Judy and to an extent Johnny is a lifestyle is for Marcus and Fran a dance-off fad: the ‘longest recipe I used this week was ‘Pierce Film Lid’. She accepts Judy’s 1949 bible though as a sort of guilt-trip.
Kay’s Marcus manifests something seen in Posh. Wade’s dissection of that blokey bonhomie darkens to something else as the harassment Marcus is outrageously accused of begins to seem a bit more plausible. Kay’s peeling back of Marcus’ nature is rivetingly nauseous.
There’s Johnny’s boss, Sara Gregory’s squeaky-clean Alex who doesn’t exude the same confidence in promoting Johnny as her recently-retired predecessor; just when a raise will stave off disaster. When Johnny’s sales performance starts slipping – and significantly it’s from when he takes his retro-life at least a bit seriously – Judy’s Fifties slips with it. It’s Alex too who when invited for drinks blinks back Judy’s paeans, reminding her that only white straight males really flourished. But it’s someone from the 1950s who moves in for the killer lines.
It’s when Judy finally turns to her mother Sylvia for support. We’ve already seen Sylvia excoriating Judy’s choices as if she’s peeling the wallpaper back – something which happens briefly at the start of Act Two in a routine of revolving walls that get a round of applause.
More seriously Sian Thomas’ withering second wave feminist Sylvia excoriates Judy’s ‘gingham paradise’. She’s already defended her own generations’ activism. Now she holds nothing back even though Fran’s there to hear it all. ‘You’re living in a cartoon’ she starts then piles up the cold, boredom, restrictions and prejudices. ‘Church. Freezing. But you couldn’t not go.’ In a magnificent scena of scorn Thomas ends one peroration about ‘My poor mother. Frightened of a yoghurt.’ She then demolishes a few things about Judy’s father. There’s nothing you can think of that Sylvia doesn’t utter. Thomas’ unanswerable indictments can only be responded to existentially.
It’s really what Judy examines in herself, the flight from her early life, the desire to return to something through her father that never existed, but at the same time asking valid questions about why housework and home-building is derided. Children might complicate the picture and Wade airbrushes that complication out altogether. Wade’s not demolishing Judy though.
By this point, with finances through the floorboards and Johnny himself emotionally distracted you might feel the rather obvious crisis looming. Wade’s skill though is to avoid the kind of denouement that for instance Mike Bartlett suggests at the end of his 2017 Albion, where a different woman also tries to resuscitate the past at all costs. After each character reacts off Judy in expansive individual scenes, we’re concentrated on the core couple’s peeled-back feelings. Wade’s symmetric felicity here seems necessary, even if you wonder if it’s just a little too mesmerising.
Though the cast is uniformly superb and Harrington and Thomas deserve particular praise, none can be high enough for Parkinson’s layered, watchful and acutely exposing Judy. You will Judy to realize herself through recognition of her wounds, Parkinson suggests in a flickered, terrified blink. But then Wade’s asking if we simply stack everything in favour of realism. Explicitly, Wade’s characters wonder which relationship isn’t constructed from fantasy.
There’s a clever containment in Home, I’m Darling that reminds us yet again of Wade’s lucidity and power. It’s a moment when rejoicing to concur with the general public, as Samuel Johnson once did over Gray’s Elegy, is the only thing to do.