Review – Home I’m Darling, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2nd March 2019

Home I'm DarlingFashionistas, help me; I can’t remember, is Retro in or out this year? Whatever, it’s definitely in chez Judy and Johnny, where she spends her day dressed in her best 1950s garb, preparing meals for her beloved on a 1950s stove, using ingredients distilled into 1950s packaging, cleaning the floor with her 1950s carpet sweeper, and preparing 1950s cocktails for Johnny when he comes home from work.

Katherine ParkinsonBut this is not the 1950s. This is today; and in her search to find her true self, Judy has espoused her favourite decade 100%. No interior design out of place, from the TV to the telephone, the sofa to the fridge, everything is genuine 1950s. Her only day-to-day link with the modern world in her home is her laptop, because she relies on eBay and Amazon to furnish her with her outdated, second-hand necessities. And, despite her spirited defence of her way of life, it’s all very sad.

Katherine Parkinson and Hywel MorganAnna Fleischle has gone to town in creating her delightful 1950s set. When we see it, as we enter the auditorium, with its dolls’ house frontage, it suggests both a perfect idyll, but also a plaything, a façade. However, when the front of the house flies up and Judy comes along and physically pushes the front door into place to reveal a proper, lived-in home, we discover this is genuinely her real life. Visually, it’s both amusing and stunning, with excellent attention to detail, from the pineapple ice-bucket to the starburst mirror. The superb 50s styling of Judy’s clothes make for an obvious contrast with the modern-day outfits worn by everyone else who comes to her house. There’s a moment in the second act when the set comes to life and switches from “half-renovated” to “fully-DIY’d” and receives a round of applause all for itself.

Katherine Parkinson and Sara GregoryAnd I think that’s the key to the whole play. On the face of it, it’s quirky, funny, outrageous even. But when you get under the surface, there’s not actually a lot going on. I can sum up the plot quite simply: Woman takes voluntary redundancy in order to live out 1950s fantasy existence; runs out of money, goes back to work. That’s it. The rest of the play is padded out, watching Judy interact with the outside world in the form of her friend Fran, her mother Sylvia and Johnny’s boss Alex. None of them really “get it” – Fran is supportive of her lifestyle, but bemused; Sylvia thinks she’s an idiot; and Alex suspects that whatever it is that Judy’s got, Johnny might catch it. Johnny blames the fact that he was passed up for promotion on Judy’s 50s obsession which made Alex feel uneasy – and he’s probably right.

Katherine ParkinsonIn fact, it may well be that Judy’s mental health is in question here, revealing some need to turn her back on reality and escape into her own little cocoon. However, if that is the case, then it appears to be one of the most easily treated mental illnesses ever recorded; simply by happily skipping off to work at the end of the play, it implies she’s cured. I think the play is also trying to send a message about feminism – but I can’t quite work out what that message is. All the way through, it’s Judy who’s in the driver’s seat. She decides to leave work, she decides to devote herself full-time to running her fantasy household, she decides to conceal their debt from Johnny, she decides to go back to work. As a couple, she’s takes the assertive role, and he’s the passive one. But despite that, she’s not happy, and she doesn’t achieve what she wants. Don’t push too hard, your dreams are china in your hand? Not sure.

Katherine Parkinson and Richard HarringtonYou might be getting the message, gentle reader, that I didn’t care for this play very much. Sadly, that’s true. Despite its initial impact – that opening scene ends with a delightful coup de theatre – I began to get a little bored, which for me is the cardinal sin for a play. None of the characters is particularly likeable, except Judy’s tell-it-like-it-is mother Sylvia, who tries desperately to appeal to her daughter to see sense and take control of reality. As she says, unless you were a straight white male, the 50s were shit. Why celebrate that time of rationing and dreariness now? It’s not unlike the current fad for pro-Brexiteers to hanker after the good old days of the Second World War; we survived it then, we can survive it now. But, as Sylvia tries to make Judy see, it’s clearly a smokescreen for something else. Doesn’t she want to achieve more than mere survival?

Hywel Morgan and Siubhan HarrisonGot political there, soz. Nearly everyone else in the play – Johnny, Fran, Alex – is portrayed with only modest, vanilla characterisation so we don’t really know much about them; and Marcus is clearly a sex pest but only has a minor involvement in the story. As for Laura Wade’s writing, it’s quite funny in parts, but probably not funny enough to think of it as a proper comedy. Any serious attempt to draw out a feminist – or indeed anti-feminist – argument in the play gets bogged down and befuddled. In the end, this is simply a story of someone making a decision to do something; then realising they were wrong and changing their mind; then moving on. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? I sense there’s a good play lurking under the surface here, but Home I’m Darling isn’t it.

Susan BrownKatherine Parkinson is one of our most intelligent and insightful stage performers and she makes the best of the role of Judy, revealing the character’s inner frustrations and ambitious motives, but even she can’t make it soar. Susan Brown is excellent as Sylvia, dishing out her caustic bonmots and the stage certainly brightens up when she comes on. Sara Gregory gives a nicely perplexed performance as Johnny’s boss Alex, out of her depth in weirdo-land.

Sara Gregory Richard Harrington and Katherine ParkinsonBut I’m afraid I was distinctly unimpressed with the whole thing. Happy to accept that I’m out of kilter on this one as it received rapturous applause from the audience and the critics have rated it highly. After its short stay at the Duke of York’s, it’s having a mini-tour to Bath and the Lowry in Salford, before returning to its birthplace from last summer, Theatr Clwyd.

Katherine Parkinson and Richard HarringtonP. S. Perhaps my reaction was in part to the uncomfortable nature of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Yes, it looks beautiful, but the bars and public areas are cramped and the toilets few-and-far-between. Go to the loo before you arrive!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Remains of the Day, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2019

The Remains of the DayOften, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.

ROTD2In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.

ROTD7The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.

ROTD1Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.

ROTD8At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.

ROTD5The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.

ROTD3Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.

ROTD6Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.

Production photos by Iona Firouzabadi