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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Home, I’m Darling

Bill Kenwright, Theatr Clwyd co-production with National Theatre

Genre: Comedic, Contemporary, Costume, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

There’s a clever containment in Home, I’m Darling that reminds us yet again of Laura Wade’s lucidity and power. Since she’s written it, it seems more like a prophesy.

Director Tamara Harvey and Hannah Noone. 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.

Till April 15th.


In the nearly five years since Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling premiered at Theatr Clwyd and National Theatre, there’s been a  disturbing Trad-Wives movement from the U.S. which shows how prescient Wade’s been: Young women in a very uncertain climate, complicit with total obedience, ostrich-like, desperate for security, gaslit by the far-right seeking to take away all women’s rights.

Home, I’m Darling – arriving this week at the Theatre Royalisn’t that sinister but Wade throws up a fault-line which, though it’s the wife driving the fantasy, speaks of abdication, a return to a never-time of butter-yellow certainty.

Chances are you’ll have made up your mind to see Wade’s first play since her magnificent Posh of 2010, though since then she’s written Jane Austen’s unfinished The Watsons for Chichester in 2021, to huge acclaim.

Director Tamara Harvey’s worked so closely with Wade, the author suggests, that it’s collaborative. Since Katherine Parkinson helped originate the role back in 2018, co-director Hannah Noone has arrived. It might be seeing this again, but a few elements seemed turned up, sharpened, particularly Jessica Ransom’s unnerving assumption of neuroses, oppressed tics and emotional reactiveness slipped on with her apron.

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. Ransom’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/blue kitchen (down to radio and early fitted cupboards), turquoise lounge with white-striped wallpaper, winged sofas, spindly tables and microwave-sized TV; fuchsia-pink bedroom in an upper storey kitted out but never inhabited.

So are Ransom’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 Ned McDermott’s Johnny, seems a tad unreal – though a live chicken is next thing to cultivate, or a goat. Vivid as a screentop saver.  As does the mischievous parody of Eliott’s edgy opening conversation with his new bride in Private Lives. You expect them to say ‘ecstatically’ even though that’s 1930. 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 notches beyond even the ‘reality’ or second lives that partially inspire it – which doesn’t stop this being Wade’s interrogation of just such impulses. Four characters here all met at a festival for 1950s living; this couple emphatically aren’t alone but Wade’s skill unpicks each motivation.

Naturally Judy online-sources authentic Fifties gear in a 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; which on reflection isn’t necessary. Judy’s answering a riven self that Ransom shivers out in a haunted look. It’s at least in part the hideous rain-pelted commune upbringing with added CND 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 Cassie​ Bradley’s cheerfully frazzled Fran who with Chevvy-owning husband Marcus (Matthew Douglas) share their friends’ love for all things Fifties – and in Charlotte Broom’s choreography punctuate the action with well-timed 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 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’”. Fran accepts Judy’s 1949 bible though as a sort of guilt-trip. Marcus though would like Fran to take the role of trad-wife, admires Judy the more.

Douglas’s Marcus manifests a theme 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. Douglas’s peeling back of Marcus’ nature is rivetingly nauseous. Many things are best left in that decade.

There’s Johnny’s boss, Nicola Andreou’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. Andreou makes a memorable stage debut, full of bright, steely energy with a sudden tilt when curve-balls from Johnny or Judy threaten her balance.

When Johnny’s sales performance starts slipping – 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. Judy finally turns to her mother Sylvia for support. We’ve seen Sylvia excoriating Judy’s choices as if she’s peeling the wallpaper back – something which happens briefly at the start of Act Two. The original revolving-decor walls are now more quietly managed.

More seriously Diane Keen’s withering second-wave-feminist Sylvia excoriates Judy’s “gingham paradise”. She’s defended her generation’s activism. Now she holds nothing back even though Fran’s there to hear it all. “You’re living in a cartoon.” Sylvia piles up the cold, boredom, restrictions and prejudices. “Church. Freezing. But you couldn’t not go.” In a magnificent scena of scorn Keen ends one peroration about “My poor mother. Frightened of a yoghurt.” She then demolishes things about Judy’s father. There’s little that Sylvia doesn’t utter. Keen’s unanswerable indictments can only be responded to existentially.

It’s what Judy examines in herself, flight from her early life, 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 when you wonder if it’s just a little too mesmerising, too pat.

Though the cast is uniformly superb and McDermott and Keen deserve particular praise, none can be high enough for Ransom’s layered, watchful, acutely exposing Judy. You will Judy to realise herself through recognition of her wounds, Ransom 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 Laura Wade’s lucidity and power. Since she’s written it, it seems more like a prophesy.