Review - Home, I'm Darling at the Duke of York's Theatre
The West End may be catching up with the times, but it's via characters who either live, or want to live, in the past. This month and next, contemporary women playwrights are seeing two new plays of theirs transfer to town - Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's historical Emilia, set 400 years ago, will come from Shakespeare's Globe to the Vaudeville, while Laura Wade's smart and engaging Home, I'm Darling, set today but whose characters try to live in an imagined version of the 1950s, has just arrived at the Duke of York's after premiering at Theatr Clwyd in Wales last summer and subsequently seen at the National.
Emilia also has an all-female cast and creative team, while Home, I'm Darling is also led by a creative team of mainly women (apart from sound designer Tom Gibbons). It's a welcome assertion of female creativity and agency. And in the case of Home, I'm Darling, it's in service of a play that tests and questions gender roles, as a 38-year-old career woman - one who earns more than her estate agent husband - gives up her job to become a full-time housewife.
She and her husband fetishise the 1950s, with their home and clothes decorated in and coming from the period; vintage clothing hangs in the wardrobe, and even the fridge in the kitchen is an antique item from then. But nostalgia isn't what it used to be - a line that gets reprised here in the unlikely case you didn't know it already - and it constantly buffs up against present-day realities.
How do you maintain the life of an obedient wife, dancing attendance on your husband's needs, as if you were still in the 50s when his earning power diminishes and you have to start hiding the bills that keep arriving? And who was he spotted having a pizza with at the modern shopping centre you've actually agreed to boycott?
As the wife, Katherine Parkinson is a mass of insecurities but also sensitivity. She has a yearning neediness - yet also a questing intelligence around the choices she's made. These buff up brilliantly against her feminist activist mum (played by Susan Brown) in one of the play's most illuminating scenes, when she is challenged on her adoption of this subservient role.
The central couple are also nicely contrasted by Hywel Morgan and Siubhan Harrison as their best friends who likewise seek to mimic the 50s period - until Marcus is suspended from his job for sexual harassment of his assistant.
The play offers bracing and constantly shifting perspectives, underneath a regular soundtrack of laughter. In this regard, it is structurally similar to the best of Alan Ayckbourn, a playwright who also buries keen character observation underneath an apparently sunny surface.
Tamara Harvey's poised and brittle production catches these changing moods precisely; Anna Fleischle's brilliant two level cutaway of the couple's home provides its own defining sense of period atmosphere. The play is full of playful, breezy charm, but also packs a considerable punch.
Home, I'm Darling tickets are available now.