Does anyone else struggle with trusting the word of critics? I realise that this somewhat of a provocative statement, and one that is most definitely ironic given that I am, in fact, a reviewer but I say that because, for about the nth time, I’ve had to endure a production that opened with a string of five stars and yet throughout Home I’m Darling I sat there bored and bemused thinking, how??!
If there’s anything about Home I’m Darling that is worthy of five stars, it is – unquestionably – the production design from Anna Fleischle. The Dorfman stage is dominated by an exquisite two up-two down house, each and every element of which seems spirited to the present day direct from the 1950s – the vintage light fittings, the pastel kitchen, the Formica breakfast table, even the swirls on the retro wallpaper. And it is all meticulously tidy.
Enter Judy (the wonderful Katherine Parkinson), With her pinup curls and her sweetheart floral print flare dress, she is the perfect 1950s pinup. Or should that be perfect 1950s housewife for as the play opens with Mr Sandman tinkling through the speakers, our Judy happily laying out a marvellous breakfast for her husband, Johnny (Richard Harrington) who she then happily kisses before she scoots him out the door for the start of his working day.
It’s only then that our Judy pulls a MacBook out from underneath her place settings and we realise this is not a nostalgia piece but a play about a contemporary woman who has chosen to live her life in an idealised depiction of life in the 1950s.
The big question is, of course, why? That should really be the crux of this play – why would a successful career woman, which our Judy was, choose to exchange this for a life of domestic servitude (read, bliss) instead? And the big problem in this new play from Laura Wade is that it doesn’t even get close to satisfactorily answering this. And, as a result, you realise that this play is all style over substance and seems to have created its own riddle that it cannot answer.
The supporting characters are all very two-dimensional and each exists as an extreme provocation/ alternative to Judy’s lifestyle – there’s her radical feminist mother who brought Judy up in a commune with other feminists in the 1980s who is the one who challenges whether her daughter’s decision is truly an act of feminism; there’s her sappy best friend whose role it is to highlight how some women have been nurtured to believe that such servitude makes them more sexually desirable to men.
Then there’s her best friend’s sleazy boyfriend who is there to bring in the #MeToo element and the sexual harassment that punctures the lie that everything was so much better in the Fifties; and of course, her husband is an underachiever in the workplace, forcing Judy to consider whether marriage is actually better off when both partners are financial contributors.
The plot is meandering and without focus – the main crux is that as her husband starts to struggle financially, will Judy have to give up her dream of being a housewife – and director Tamara Harvey’s attempts to liven up proceedings with Fifties music interludes seem more an act of desperation that something that strengthens the production. Worse, the lack of nuance and complexity in the characters makes this show bland and uninteresting.
Fundamentally, the play can’t seem to get to grips with why Judy has decided to do this. There’s an attempt to frame it as a feminist choice, but that doesn’t really land, and it just seems odd that such a successful woman would suddenly and so drastically transform her life in this way (it’s such an extreme decision that she refuses to have any modern appliance or condiment in her house). And an attempt to depict it as a way for Judy to retreat from a life she wasn’t enjoying doesn’t make sense either. The change is just too dramatic to be patted away like that.
So, clearly, I was extremely disappointed in this. I am a fan of Laura Wade’s work but as I sat there in my seat, arms folded, wishing the end to come, I couldn’t shake the notion that the production team (and it is emphasised that this production came out of a enduring collaborative effort between the creatives) just got this idea – what if a woman chose to live in the 1950s – and couldn’t put it down, even though they couldn’t work out themselves why any woman would do so.
This is a disappointing, inexplicable play really, and given the noticeable exitsfrom the audience in the interval, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who felt this way.
National Theatre, London, to September 5.
All production images by Manuel Harlan.
Director: Tamara Harvey
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter
Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons
Choreographer: Charlotte Broom