Home I’m Darling at the National Theatre review ***

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Home, I’m Darling

National Theatre Dorfman, 29th August 2018

Now I have to confess to a slight feeling of disappointment with Home, I’m Darling. Don’t get me wrong. It is a very amusing play, with a fine cast led by Katherine Parkinson, and note-perfect set, costume, lighting and sound designs from Anna Fleischle, Lucy Carter and Tom Gibbons, which, cumulatively makes its points. It’s just that it doesn’t really yield too much in the way of surprises once the initial inversion has played out. It feels like writer Laura Wade, whose work to date has been inspired, notably Posh, had a really good idea and a series of fine scenes in her head, but, in translating them on to the page, some of the fizz seemed to evaporate.

Katherine Parkinson plays Judy, a stay at home housewife, married to Johnny (Richard Harrington), an estate agent. It quickly transpires that they, together, have taken their nostalgic obsession with the 1950s to its logical, (or maybe illogical), conclusion. Their friends Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay) share their enthusiasm for the clothes, music and style but not the domestic arrangements, right down to Judy decanting the sugar into 1950s containers and milk into glass bottles. Mum Sylvia, (a trenchant Sian Thomas), who brought up Judy in a commune, finds her daughter’s choice hard to comprehend, this “gingham paradise”. The cast is completed by Alex (Sara Gregory), Johnny’s boss, who Johnny is trying to curry favour with to secure promotion. The set up, with the insertion of an Act 2 flashback, allows Laura Wade to explore all angles of the “debate” about gender roles and choices in contemporary society. What value does that society place on “traditional women’s work”? How to balance “choice” with economic necessity? Who can judge on the choice to stay at home or work? What are the risks in fetishising the past? If this sound like its going to be a dour evening never fear. It is all delivered with the lightest of comic touches as you would expect from this writer and from Tamara Harvey who has directed her work before.

The problem is that having conjured up this admittedly intriguing conceit, and established a sit-com mood, the tone never really wavers, and there are maybe a couple too many plot revolutions jemmied in to cover all the bases, for example when Marcus reveals his true misogynist colours. There are occasions when the play steps out of its self imposed comic straightjacket, when Sylvia delivers an impassioned speech about the sacrifices her generation made to promote feminism in the 1970s and just how materially tougher life was for a child in the 1950s, for example. And Katherine Parkinson, with her ability to convey Judy’s brittle interior nature, (she always sounds the weeniest bit p*ssed to me), shows how she crumples under her own self-imposed contradictions. Having teased out a dramatic explanation for Judy’s decision from her own childhood, the plot seems to go into reverse and the ending is something of a damp squib. We all, the SO, BUD and KCK, came out just a little deflated.

I am thinking maybe I am being a little harsh here, and maybe we were asking too much, but that’s where we came out. There are some priceless lines, (Fran’s “the longest recipe I followed this week was Pierce Film Lid”), and the play will definitely make you think. Given that it has sold out at the NT and, prior to that at Theatr Clywd, and has garnered a slew of 4* reviews, I wouldn’t dream of putting you off but there was just something that held us back. And trust me the 4 of us are usually very easily pleased.

 

 

Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****

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Colder Than Here

Milton Court Studio, 13th February 2018

Another visit to see the final year actors at the Guildhall School take on a fascinating contemporary play. Another excellent production laced with outstanding performances. Even better than the production of Edward Bond’s Saved, (Saved at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review ****) which I had not expected.

Now playwright Laura Wade is best known to you culture vultures from her play Posh, later remade as the film The Riot Club directed by Lone Scherfig (who is an excellent director BTW). It is a not so thinly veiled parody of the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, the proving ground for rich, obnoxious toffs and, I fear people, many of your leaders. If you are only a casual theatre-goer put this on your list. I guarantee you will love it. That is why it has been so frequently revived since its Royal Court premiere in 2010.

I can’t vouch for any of Laura Wade’s other work with the exception of her adaptation of Sarah Water’s novel Tipping the Velvet, directed by the wonderful Lyndsey Turner at the Lyric Hammersmith. Now there is no easy way to say this but I did initially fell a little self-conscious when I rocked up to this as a solo, 50 year old fat bloke amongst such a glamorous audience. Once I had relaxed into it however I enjoyed the entertainment. The music-hall setting worked well, the musical arrangements were jolly, there was plenty of eye-catching capers, the cast attacked the text with gusto, especially Sally Messham, (seen recently in the Orange Tree/Paines Plough/Theatre Clywd triple bill), and Laura Davies, (the best actor in Rose Kingston’s recent revival of Rules for Living – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It was, as others observed, maybe a bit tame and less gritty in tone than Sarah Water’s book but a pleasure nonetheless.

So this then was an opportunity to see one of Ms Wade’s highly regarded earlier plays. And what a fine play it is. Down-to-earth, (no pun intended), Myra has terminal bone cancer. She determines to have a green burial and ropes husband Alec, and two daughters, headstrong Jenna and more measured Harriet, into her plan. As Myra says “you’s got to keep busy if you’re off work with dying”. That’s about it. Yet Laura Wade’s writing is so exact and light of touch that we learn a lot about, and laugh a lot with, this normal family having to deal with death. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is a commonplace front room flanked by copper piping which extends to the video design of K. Yolland. This serves as the backdrop for the six scenes where the family, in various combinations, visits potential natural burial sites.

Myra’s matter-of-fact approach to the end of her life, Alec’s refusal to talk directly about it and his frustrations with bureaucracy, Jenna’s drama-queen, boyfriend troubles and the eventual breakdown of Harriet’s composure, all reveal that their displacement and coping mechanisms are fragile. We can feel the sorrow beneath the comedy but the play never feels sentimental or mawkish.

So plenty for the four actors to get their teeth into. I was particularly impressed by the two sisters played by Phoebe Marshall and Mhairi Gayer. To be fair they probably have the best of the play in the scenes where they visit potential burial sites together. Phoebe Marshall cleverly shows us that Jenna’s truculent exterior is thin disguise for a sweeter interior. Mhairi Gayer, who was outstanding as Anya in the Guildhall’s Cherry Orchard last year (The Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***), was utterly convincing as Harriet. I expect an illustrious career lies ahead of her. Tallulah Bond and Jonny Lavelle had a bit more work to do playing characters twice their age but both delivered admirably. Director Lisa Blair precisely captured the tone of the play.

Now you can see plenty of contemporary and new plays in our great subsidised or, when the reputations justify it, commercial theatres where the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts. Ambition trumps execution. So it really was a pleasure to see this very fine, gentle play, which still has much to say, performed with such care and attention. Even down to, with the odd wobble, the West Midlands accents. And all for a tenner. Brilliant.