Having missed Laura Wade’s Tipping the Velvet adaptation, I haven’t sat down to watch a new play of hers since Posh, a stonking eight years ago. I was an undergraduate then and hadn’t seen a huge amount of new writing, and I fell in love with its wit and life and all the mean things it said about rich people (my natural predators) – I’m not sure I’d ever seen a play do that before.
Home I’m Darling – running at the National Theatre until 5 September, in co-production with Theatr Clwyd – is a welcome return to the stage for a writer very rightly loved and respected for, amongst other things, her well-honed political eye, though she’s left the actual politicians on the shelf this time. And the result is a piece of theatre pretty far cry from what she’s known for, right? A blessed relief to Quentin Letts, obviously, who was mystified by the whole thing but praised the play’s characters, ‘drawn largely without sarcasm or political rancour.’ (I’m not linking to the article because I had to go there to find the quote and I’m sorry about that and let’s not give them any more money, okay?)
And anyway, what could possibly be political about this story? A woman, offered voluntary redundancy from a job she hates, makes a Choice to work full-time, instead, at running the home she shares with her husband Johnny (Richard Harrington). This woman loves the trappings, the aesthetic, the safety of the 1950s, so why not live in it all the time? Why not be there to take her husband’s shoes off when he gets through the door, hand him his slippers, mix him an Old Fashioned – she loves him, and in a life given more purpose by this love than by her work, the work of showing that love seems far more worthwhile to her than sitting in an office surrounded by dirty teaspoons, endless birthdays and powerful old men so outmoded that they get their PAs to print out their emails.
Judy (a glittering, completely magnetic performance from Katherine Parkinson) has made her own choices. She chose for herself. And now she and Johnny can live the lives they’ve always wanted; become the truest versions of themselves.
Home I’m Darling is deeply funny, but cut through with sadness; it’s a straightforward home-set drama about the workings of a marriage, but Wade’s astute wit is as present as ever here, as she debates the value assigned to different kinds of work and the politics of domesticity. And of course it’s fucking political (but you knew I was going to say that). It’s political to dedicate time and space on a National Theatre stage to unpacking the power dynamics of task-sharing in a marriage, how that interacts with patriarchy, and how free anyone really is to choose. It also felt pretty political to see a child-free married couple in their late 30s on stage, whose entire dramatic function wasn’t to desire, gain or have lost children – whose child-less-ness is barely even discussed, except in a couple of throwaway jokes.
Once or twice, the discourse works against the play; Sian Thomas is fantastically funny as Sylvia, Judy’s mother, but their relationship – a bra-burning second-wave feminist and her disappointingly right-to-choose domestic goddess daughter – could be a whole play in itself, and seeing them together only twice forces Wade to boil them down a bit to something that occasionally feels stand-in, each of them representing a side of Wade’s argument with herself. Luckily it’s a really interesting argument, and so many of the other scenes reveal Wade’s exquisite sense of craft that you really can’t hold it against her. Characters we as an audience are not ‘supposed’ to like are always the right side of Bad, always understandable, always believably flawed, and everything feels neat and clever ad deeply, deeply considered.
There’s also an absolutely beautiful set design by Anna Fleischle – lucky, as much of the action hinges on Johnny and Judy’s lovingly decorated home, as well as being the location of the whole play. It’s in many ways the seventh character in the play, and it’s fun that this is a home-set drama with a real reason to be one – we’re seeing a shy couple who’ve made a temple and a prison of their home, trying to insulate themselves from a world that feels complicated beyond their understanding.
And the central relationship, that marriage at the heart of the play, manages to absolutely transcend Home I’m Darling’s odd thought experiment moments and the gorgeous oddity of the ’50s thing (which weirdly really works, too), to become something properly meaningful and lovely. Any feminist female-identifying person who’s ever been in a relationship with a male-identifying person will know that feeling, trying to navigate thousands of years of oppression and control and chattel in a relationship you feel is equal, but – second-guessing your instincts, and then third-guessing them, and trying to work out what it means if you actually are the person who prefers to cook, or you like things to be clean, or, or, or.
Ultimately the play feels like a love letter to cooperation on any couple’s own terms; a right to choose, but to choose from options that don’t necessarily even exist until you make them up together. It’s surprisingly romantic, satisfying to watch, and a fun dramatic thinking-through of the politics that shape real people’s lives. Laura Wade, it’s good to have you back.
Home, I’m Darling is on National Theatre until 5th September. More info here.