Stephen Dalton reviews Laura Wade’s Olivier Award winning comedy Home, I’m Darling starring Katherine Parkinson, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 20 April

The past is not just a foreign country in Home, I’m Darling, more like a dangerously seductive fantasy. Featuring a stupendous star turn by Katherine Parkinson of The IT Crowd fame, Laura Wade’s hit comic drama premiered to great acclaim last summer at the Theatr Clwyd in North Wales, followed by a successful London run at the National Theatre and a West End transfer. Tamara Harvey’s Olivier award-winning production is now on a short nationwide tour, culminating in a lap of honour back at Theatr Clywd.

Wade conceived Home, I’m Darling before Brexit and the rise of the #MeToo movement, but her sharp-edged comedy still touches on timely themes relating to both. The delusional dream of returning to some idyllic Little England, an imagined golden age before sexual equality and mass immigration, lends extra bite to this outwardly sunny farce. The tweeness of cupcake feminism, the regressive subtext of austerity chic, and the perennially low value placed on women’s domestic labour all feed into the play’s caustic critique of Keep Calm and Carry On nostalgia. This is rich dramatic soil, and Harvey’s production is full of strong visual flourishes, even if Wade’s intentions feel clunky and confused in places.

Judy (Parkinson) enjoys playing the perfect domestic goddess to husband Johnny (Jo Stone-Fewings), beaming through the day’s housework chores as she twirls around her immaculate suburban dream home in a series of brightly-hued gingham dresses. This thirty-something middle-class couple’s clothes, interior decor, and chirpy conversation all belong in a 1950s sitcom. Only after Judy sends Johnny off to work with a prim wifely kiss, then digs out her laptop to buy more mid-century treasure on Ebay, does Wade reveal we are actually observing a 21st century couple.

Obsessively immersed in a self-made 1950s theme park, Judy and Johnny have transformed their lives into a round-the-clock role-playing pageant. They own an antique fridge that barely works, drive a vintage car, jive around their living room to retro rock’n’roll, and limit their use of modern technology to a bare minimum. But behind the forced smiles, this bizarre lifestyle experiment is starting to fray at the edges. Living inside an artificial parody of the past comes with a heavy financial and emotional cost, stirring up the kind of tensions that can destroy marriages.

Judy’s mother Sylvia (Susan Brown), a veteran feminist of the Germaine Greer generation, has little patience for her daughter’s retro-fetishist lifestyle. She raised Judy in a chaotic commune, Wade’s simplistic psychological explanation of why she grew up to crave such a conventional, regimented existence. Sylvia functions as the play’s voice of reason, repeatedly reminding her daughter that she inhabits a sanitised cartoon of the past far removed from the ugly reality. Her grandstanding set-piece speech hammers home the uncomfortable truth that 1950s Britain was actually a pretty terrible place for women, gay people and ethnic minorities. Wade underscores this point with a heavy-handed scene in which a desperate Judy briefly considers trading sexual favours for cash.

As she proved in The IT Crowd, Parkinson has a natural flair for comedy grounded in barely concealed neurosis. Her pressure-cooker performance as Judy is a masterful study in brittle self-delusion, like a modern-day Blanche DuBois. Her ability to switch between tragic and comic registers, voice wavering from strained sweetness to husky anguish, perfectly suits Wade’s dissection of passive-aggressive domestic manners.

Credit is also due to co-stars Siubhan Harrison and Hywel Morgan, who balance their dramatic roles with fleet-footed rock’n’roll dance routines that serve as scene divisions.

Anna Fleischle’s superb stage design, a meticulously detailed suburban house laid out over two storeys, has some witty technical tricks up its sleeve too. It is rare to see an inanimate set winning its own round of applause, but that was one delightful highlight at the Theatre Royal Bath’s opening night.

But not everything in Home, I’m Darling is quite so polished. Wade’s plot mechanics often feel crudely schematic, falling back on creaky theatrical clichés like shock marital confessions and long-hidden family secrets for contrived dramatic impact. Judy’s single-minded obsession with the 1950s never seems wholly convincing or even all that serious, a minor problem which can be resolved with some fairly painless common sense. The play’s baggy two-hour running time also drags a little, while most of the jokes never reach beyond polite Radio 4 sitcom level. A few more big laughs would have helped sell the whole shiny package.

Wade’s take-home message? “Wearing a frilly apron and dancing around with a duster isn’t feminism.” Also, nostalgia is not “a branding strategy for tea towels.” All true enough, but somewhat banal insights for a prize-winning West End smash with so many rapturous reviews. Home, I’m Darling turns an inspired premise into a fun night out, for sure, but it falls short of greatness.

Main image: Katherine Parkinson as Judy and Sara Gregory as Alex in Home, I’m Darling. Credit: Manuel Harlan