Theatre Royal Bath until 25 February Words by Melissa Blease
As the immortal first line to novelist LP Hartley’s The Go-Between goes, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. But according to author Raymond Bond, “the past is always with us, as it feeds the present.” Is it possible for both philosophies to combine in perfect, timely harmony?
Contemporary British playwright Laura Wade’s recent past took a distinct upturn in 2018 when her eighth play Home, I’m Darling premiered at The National Theatre, swiftly bagging both an Olivier Award and a nomination for UK Theatre’s Best New Play. But the past that inspired Wade to write her thoroughly modern dissection of domestic (dis)harmony goes back much further than that: 70ish years to be (vaguely) precise, to a time when women aspired to be perfect housewives with perfect houses, supported by a perfect man who bankrolled the whole perfect arrangement. A foreign country? Indeed! But can we revisit it today? In the case of Home, I’m Darling, the answer to that question would be yes… and, no.
Instead of simply setting her play in the actual 1950s, Wade takes us on a unique voyage back to the era without actually travelling there: the vintage 1950s flourishes (clothes; music; furniture; haircuts; cocktails) are perfectly present and correct, but when our tour guide opens a drawer and removes her laptop, suspicions that things aren’t exactly as they first seemed are confirmed, and the drama-clock starts ticking…
Having taken voluntary redundancy from her successful career in finance three years previously, high-achiever Judy has turned her love of all-things-1950s into a real life way of life, rebranding herself as a domestic goddess specialising in cleaning, cooking and maintaining an immaculate facsimile of a 1950s home (complete with impeccably sourced original fixtures and fittings) for her husband Johnny.
But is Johnny really, truly happy with his superannuated spouse? Has Judy voluntarily elected to turn herself into a Stepford Wife in an attempt to obliterate memories of her own unhappy upbringing? And is a plate of Devilled Eggs really the best accompaniment to a gin cocktail?
Jessica Ransom steps into Judy’s kitten-heeled pumps with self-assured aplomb, skilfully negotiating the tricky tightrope between genuine conviction and fanatic neurosis in every line, gesture, expression and flick of one of her many circle skirts. Neil McDermott as husband Johnny – an I-don’t-want-us-to-go-mad man in a fake Mad Men world – flits between docile and desperate without a hint of domineering and remains entirely likeable throughout, while Diane Keen as Judy’s mother Sylvia brings verve and context to the drama, offering staunch reminders that her daughter’s lifestyle is most definitely not what previous generations of women fought so ardently for.
Elsewhere, Shanez Pattni as Johnny’s boss Alex keeps key scenes firmly fixed in the 21st century, even though Anna Fleischle’s richly detailed sets and costumes (supplemented by era-specific music and even the odd dance routine) make the occasional appearance of a mobile phone as jarringly out-of-place to the audience as it is to Judy.
But somehow lost in the midst of it all, Judy and Johnny’s friends Fran and Marcus (Cassie Bradley and Matthew Douglas respectively) are never really given the opportunity to come to fully rounded life. It’s clear, on one level, that they share Judy and Johnny’s verve for vintage, but there just isn’t enough depth to their personalities, motivations or back stories to justify their presence, making a rather sinister scene between Judy and Marcus feel oddly unnecessary and distinctly out-of-place in an otherwise smooth-flowing production.
That minor glitch aside, however, Home, I’m Darling is an intelligent, insightful stimulating discourse on modern love, gender roles, work/life balance… and why keeping a tub of bicarbonate of soda in the (very tidy) cupboard underneath your (sparkling) kitchen sink could be the remedy for all your housework woes.