By Laura Wade. Directed by Tamara Harvey.
*I write about plays from a writer’s perspective. Please note this means my blog posts contain spoilers.
Judy believes that being the perfect 1950s housewife will bring happiness and harmony to her marriage. First produced at Theatr Clywd then the National Theatre in 2018, Home, I’m Darling transferred to the West End in early 2019.
I’ve always found 1950s nostalgia a bit creepy. Why do people do their hair in victory rolls, dress like Don Draper, or go swing dancing in billowy frocks when we know that the 50s was a time of despair for housewives, when being gay was criminalised, and it was an era of colonialism, racism, and extreme gender inequality? Haven’t these people read The Feminine Mystique? What’s the appeal?
So I was intrigued to see the great Laura Wade, author of Posh and Breathing Corpses, tackle this subject. And she doesn’t disappoint.
Home, I’m Darling is a modern-day A Doll’s House. Both plays end with an iconic door slam, which we’ll come back to… But where A Doll’s House is a Faustian story, about a debt that Nora has secretly incurred to treat her sick husband; Home, I’m Darling is an Orpheus story – the gift that has been lost. In fact, several gifts are lost: Judy and Johnny’s happy marriage, Judy’s independence, and their financial security.
Home, I’m Darling is also that rare, old-fashioned, and currently unfashionable thing – a well-made play. It has a three-act structure. In Act One, we meet Judy and Johnny. Initially we think that we are watching a play set in the 50s; in a picture-perfect nostalgist’s fantasy, Judy the doting wife prepares her husband for his day at work, with a breakfast spread and packed lunch. But when Johnny leaves the house, Judy whips out her laptop. The audience is shocked to learn we’re in the present day. As the first act unfolds, we begin to see the cracks in their marriage, until the Act One Climax when Johnny has a huge fight with Judy because she refuses to have sex with him in their pristine living room, and he storms out.
Act Two begins several years earlier, at the start of their marriage. We discover how the idea to live in the 1950s came about. Judy was made redundant from her high-powered managerial job, and thought it would be an opportunity to take their love of the 50s (the clothes, cars, dancing) to its full conclusion by becoming a housewife. She sees it as a respite from the face-paced, high-stress modern world. At this point, Wade makes brilliant use of what Stephen Jeffreys calls “the comedy zone.” Just after the interval, when the audience is all flustered after meeting their various needs, ‘the audience are rather like schoolchildren after a windy breaktime; at this point, almost anything will be funny.’ We see the uptight Judy, who never uses bad language, swearing like a sailor and putting her feet up, in stark contrast to Judy of Act One, and the audience lap it up. Wade also plays with the audience’s expectations. The set change could signal that we’ve moved forward in time; perhaps the couple have split up and the house is being renovated for new tenants. It takes a moment for the audience to realise we’re in the past. After this brief foray into the past, the action returns to the present and we see the marriage unravel further. The family friend, Marcus, makes a pass at Judy, who is slow to brush him off. We suspect Johnny might be having an affair with his new boss, Alex. It all comes to a head in another almighty fight in front of their friends, when Johnny discovers (like in A Doll’s House), that Judy has been keeping their money troubles from him believing that she can fix it herself.
In Act Three, the situation could go either way. The couple could split, or they could find a way out of the mess. We discover that Johnny doesn’t actually like being waited on hand and foot, that it makes him feel like a child. Judy is scared to go back into the world, after her life has been reduced to her 1950s doll’s house, with her only connection with the outside world an annual trip to a 50s festival, where she can continue to live in aspic. The dream of a doll-like wife turns out to be bad for both partners in the marriage. The play ends with the satisfying door slam, but in contrast to the original door slam of A Doll’s House, the couple leave together united in their rejection of idealised domesticity.
The three-act structure bolsters the themes of the play. Act One is the thesis – Judy thinks that rearranging their division of labour, so that she stays at home, will give them more free time as a couple and allow her to live a more meaningful life free from the stresses of work and modern technology. Act Two is the antithesis – we watch their marriage unravel from being happy and equal (in fact, Judy had a more high-powered and lucrative job than Johnny) to being miserable, with Judy’s life and confidence shrinking, and Johnny embarrassed by his prim and infantilising wife. We also have a slightly on-the-nose, but still rousing, antithesis speech from Judy’s mum, who proclaims that everything was terrible in the 50s – racism and sexism were rife, there was no central heating, and the only people who had a nice time were middle-class white men. Act Three is the synthesis – the clash between the ideal and the reality of 50s domesticity and the rigid gendered division of labour is resolved by both partners realising that marriage is better with a more equal relationship. They realise that they can keep what they like from the 50s – the clothes, dancing, cars – and jettison the rest. They discuss and figure out their financial difficulties together.
The set also bolsters the themes of the play. It is, quite literally, a doll’s house. It is a split level set with four rooms – the bedroom and bathroom upstairs, and the living room and kitchen downstairs. The house is splendidly bedecked with authentic 50s décor, including a flamingo shower curtain to crown the powder-pink bathroom, and a faulty Smeg fridge in the kitchen. Not only does the set allow the characters to be in different rooms at the same time while we can still see what they’re doing, it also represents the fact that Judy’s life has narrowed down to this tiny 50s bubble. The problem of “burglary theatre” – having technicians dressed in black move props and set around – is also brilliantly solved by having dancers move the props. After the interval, different décor is in place, signalling the shift in time. The shift back to the present day is achieved with all sorts of cute theatrical magic tricks, including revolving walls and a disappearing shower curtain. The music used during the set changes also fits the world and themes of the play. Each track is a 50s classic, and each is picked to match the action. For example, as the audience leaves for the interval we hear “Will you still love me tomorrow?” by The Shirelles.
The constellation of characters provides useful contrast. Fran and Marcus also love the 50s aesthetic and dancing, but choose to live in the present. Marcus wishes Fran would give up her job and act like Judy, but this serves to reveal his latent misogyny, rather than support Judy’s decision. In an exquisite, cringe-inducing scene, Alex, Johnny’s new boss, comes over for cocktails – the done thing in the 50s. Judy over-dresses and over-prepares, laying out a vast array of retro, home-cooked nibbles. Alex, in her smart-casual contemporary clothes, hand welded to smartphone, is overwhelmed by this bizarre display of domestic godessery. The clash of cultures highlights that they’ve taken the 50s nostalgia way too far. Judy’s mum, Sylvia, a hardcore second-wave feminist, who brought Judy up in a commune, embodies the antithesis of Judy’s vision of womanhood and happiness.
The play highlights how much gender relations have changed since the 1950s. Watching Judy flit around her house dusting, ‘cleaning behind things’, and eagerly waiting to provide her husband with cocktail and slippers on his return from work, is ludicrous. It is almost like a Brechtian alienation technique – putting this domestic labour on stage, making it strange, to reveal how weird it is that women were ever expected to live this way. Yet, it also hints at what hasn’t changed. It is Judy who bought into the domestic-goddess ideal and convinced Johnny it was a good idea. Why do some women still feel that the doll’s house life could be fulfilling? In a sub-plot, their friend Marcus has been accused of sexual harassment at work. This seems perfectly plausible to the audience, because Marcus comes across as an ass, yet Judy and Marcus’s wife, Fran, refuse to believe the allegations. Also, Judy insists that this life is her choice, and that she is a feminist because feminism involves women being able to choose whatever they want. This isn’t so much a 50s idea, as the prevailing idea today. Choice is a false idol, used to justify non-feminist acts, including reducing oneself to a cook, cleaner and emotional services provider for a husband.
The politics of the play aren’t especially radical. The thesis is that modern life is rubbish and it was better in the past. The antithesis is that life was worse in the past. The synthesis is that the couple can find a way to live in the present that works for them. All of this takes place within the confines of a heterosexual marriage – a patriarchal, bourgeois institution. And the synthesis could have been taken further. Instead of finding a way to live with the present, they could have identified what they find alienating about the present and what they could do to change that.
Setting the politics aside, however, Home, I’m Darling is an excellent example of the craft of playwriting. Playwrights who want to learn about classic structure, fitting ideas to structure, assembling a constellation of characters, and use of set, are advised to check out this play.
Home, I’m Darling played at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 13 April 2019 and is currently on tour.