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link with the modern world in her home is her laptop, because she relies on eBay and Amazon to furnish her with her outdated, second-hand necessities.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 – Dead Funny, Vaudeville Theatre, 28th December 2016

Dead FunnyTime for our annual few days in the capital city between Christmas and New Year to catch some shows, do some shopping and overeat because we didn’t at Christmas time – and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. No sooner had we checked into our hotel than we were out and about again, heading towards the Vaudeville Theatre to see Dead Funny for its Wednesday matinee. This fairly ground-breaking comedy appeared on the London stage way back in 1994, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t go to the theatre much due to extreme poverty. But its reputation as a savage comedy has remained in good stead during the intervening years, and I was very happy to book for its current reincarnation, so that I could see what all the fuss was about first hand.

katharine-parkinson-and-rufus-jonesIt’s hard to underestimate just how irritating a true comedy nerd can be. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. As a teenager, I was in a crowd at school who knew every line to every Monty Python sketch, every Reginald Perrin scene, every Dad’s Army episode. As Not The Nine O’Clock News once so accurately stated, we are still ostensibly a Python-worshipping country: “when two or three are gathered together in one place then they shall perform the Parrot Sketch. It is an ex-parrot. ALL: It has ceased to be.” But comedy is a fickle idol; comedians die, and their work, eventually, for the most part, will die with them. Dead Funny is set on that particular day in April 1992 when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died. Now, you and I, gentle reader, remember them both very well, as we are all of a certain age, I fear. But what of older comics? The comedy nerds in Dead Funny also recite by heart sketches by Max Miller. Wo! That’s way out of my league. I never saw Max Miller on television – he died in 1963, for heaven’s sake. My only link to him is remembering the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s own unique impersonation of Maxie, which would surface whenever she thought she had an appreciative audience: “listen, listen, Blackpool Rock, Blackpool Rock, big as your father’s… cock your eyes over there lady!” With those kind of traumatic childhood memories, I never needed to see the original.

Black and white comedy screensThe oldest reference in the play is to Little Tich, whom I believe my great-aunt saw on the London stage in the 1920s. But for how long will these names be remembered? I did recognise him in the black and white footage shown on the stage before curtain-up, but I bet not many others did. I also recognised the theme tunes of Harry Worth, Comedy Playhouse and Hancock. I dwell on this because I think it’s unfortunate that the time will come when this play will be a museum piece, as Fred Scuttle and Lurcio have faded off into long distance memory. It’s a particular shame because the play deals with the very real and up to date horrors of marital deception and those unique anxieties that come about when you’re “trying for a baby”. Eleanor is desperate to have a baby but her husband Richard is desperate to put off having sex with her. The neighbours, Nick and Lisa, have a baby which only puts additional pressure on Eleanor. Their other neighbour Brian comes out as gay to no one’s surprise but his own, believing he is the reason why everyone else is at their own throats, whereas in fact he is the only blameless person in the play.

steve-pemberton-and-katharine-parkinsonJust one thing unites Richard, Nick, Lisa and Brian – they are all comedy nerds, members of the Dead Funny club, that celebrates the life and work of comedians and comedy actors who have shuffled off this mortal coil. Eleanor sees this as just childish nonsense so is even more alienated as a result. It’s a play about relationships, about loyalty, about facing up to your responsibilities. It’s about as savage as a comedy can be whilst still making you laugh uproariously whilst choking back the ghastliness of its context. As an example, there’s a joke about how to tell if your wife has Alzheimer’s or AIDS. There’s really no coming back from that sentence, is there? The punchline genuinely shocked me (and I’m not a shockable guy). But I also laughed for ages.

dead-funny-castIt’s an absolutely superb production, with all five characters played as a masterclass of comedy acting. Katherine Parkinson is just brilliant as the woebegone Eleanor, keeping her bewildered emotions just in check as she goes through the motions of “wooing” her husband, slowly piecing together the elements that lead to possible marital infidelity, treading a fine line of near hysteria as her world comes tumbling down. Rufus Jones is excellent as the unwilling Richard, praying for the sex to be over so that he can get on with important issues like ringing up his mates and talking about Benny Hill. Kudos to Mr Jones for playing that excruciating (but hilarious) nude scene with such aplomb. Ralf Little brings a nice balance of laddishness and aggression to the character of Nick, a true comedy nerd if ever there was one; Emily Berrington delivers Lisa’s platitudes in a wonderfully quirky monotone; and Steve Pemberton’s Brian is a true gent who offers kindness and support wherever he can, so long as he can do it as Fred Scuttle.

katharine-parkinson-and-emily-berringtonA very funny play, that leads you up the garden path with an inventive and surprising storyline and leaves five people in a very different place from where they started. Agonising in its examination of those little things that can bring people together and can tear them apart. No wonder it won so many awards first time around. First rate!