An exquisitely detailed design of a picture box façade-free house. A multitude of circle dresses that swoosh beautifully around Katherine Parkinson as she seemingly dances every step before you. These are the Polaroid images that Home, I’m Darling will firmly imprint in your mind as they so strongly epitomise our expectations of how rose-tinted spectacles make everything seem so tempting, so delicious, so perfect. They make it easy for us to empathise with the yearnings for the 50’s lifestyle of American Apple Pie TV that Parkinson’s character Judy has – though hopefully not like her to the extreme of it being so all encompassing as to eschew all thoughts of the real past and any hopes for a possible real future.
It becomes a checklist of cliché.
This isn’t simply a lazy comment on design as getting this look so desirable is key to us accepting the believability of the conceit – if not the plot itself – co-created by writer Laura Wade (of Posh fame) and director Tamara Harvey which comes to the Dorfman after its critically adored world premiere at Harvey’s residency, Theatr Clywd. And it is visually stunning.
However, just as with those metaphorical specs, once the tint here loses its rosiness, what’s left at the root of the play is in fact, a bit disappointing. A bit underwhelming. It’s ok – well passable – for the most part. It’s just all a bit grey and empty and not that much to look at after all.
Having taken voluntary redundancy from her job in ‘Finance’ (working for the ‘Head of Tax’ and with a degree, but apart from that, details are scant), Judy tells her Estate Agent and fellow 50s’ fan hubby Johnny (Richard Harrington) that this is their opportunity to live what they love and plans to replace her role as erstwhile breadwinner with that of a typical (as seen on TV) 50s’ Housewife. This clearly would take their hobby up a level from finding stuff on eBay to decorate where they live, to adhering to the ‘rules’ that dictate the roles they fulfil and the actions they carry out in all they do. Convinced not in small part by his love of the era’s cars, his love for Judy, and the promise that as the centre of this new/old world, attention and sex will be his on tap, he readily agrees to a six-month trial.
Three years later (which is when we join them), this winning lifestyle choice isn’t winning them much anymore. He’s losing his potential to be promoted just as quickly as she’s losing her acceptance of 21st century life outside of their bubble. Meanwhile, their friends in the adventure are just losing their interest in the whole 50s game (though truth be told, she’s only in it for the dancing and dresses, while he sees it as a licence to adopt the chauvinism and wandering hands of the time). And Judy’s feminist, ex-commune dwelling Mother is losing patience with her daughter’s fictional fantasies of a past that never existed. It all chinks at the vulnerability of the façade that she has drawn around her that has become more straitjacket than security blanket.
(The question of quite why the previous 29 months over the intended trial period seem to have gone by without a hiccough is likely just picking at theatrical disbelief…. Though really, not even a moment of previous tension…? Not a realignment of shared interests….? Not a stumble or cross word? The complete lack of history does nothing to give depth to any of this)
This of course allows for nods to questions about the nature of feminism – just because you may not agree with the choice she makes, it’s still a choice she has made. The natural tendency for generations to rebel and still get it wrong – from commune to pristine. And there’s a frisson of #MeToo – how can it be sexual harassment when the woman is ugly? They’re harmless little points of banter seen to with the lightness of a Mrs Beeton’s Victoria Sponge.
The discomfort here is that the entire play (not just Judy’s attempts to recreate) seems as though it was actually written, and is being performed, in the 1950s rather than the here and now. The style, the structure and the attempted dramatic tension of the piece is so hackneyed as to make each episode of I Love Lucy seem richly layered with complexity, gripping you to the last moment to discover whether Lucy and Desi will survive the adventure this time (spoiler: they do, they always always do).
It becomes a checklist of cliché. The surface happy relationships where the tension is not so much quietly simmering under, but more boiling over with great big slopping splashes hitting the worktop. There’s creakingly unsubtle builds of the scenes that are just missing a cymbal crash to signpost the upcoming crescendo of the end reveal to make them any more obvious. The hidden props that are left just out of sight, waiting to be found and cause all sorts of trouble (yes, Judy really does store all the final demand notices in the cupboard under the sink, clearly hoping there won't be any accidental spillages requiring a cloth.... oops). These are the sorts of devices more expected in the performances of local author’s new whodunnit playing many a Little Theatre across the country every summer.
It’s a crying shame as there is so much more potential here to be played with and I simply can’t believe these are intentional stylistic choices to build the 50’s atmosphere. What could have been sharp and witty and clever and memorable West End theatre is just pleasant fodder for Am Dram groups across the country (no offence intended to Am Dram groups – my point is that this can be done with little effort, not little skill).
I expected and wanted to love this. Instead the best I can say is that it was very nice to look at. The biggest disappointment of all is that Katherine Parkinson – of whom I am such a big fan, I would happily watch just reading from the script – is left to wring out her talent to give a performance that is just fine. And that in itself is a crying shame.