Theatre

Boasting a superlative performance by Nikki Shiels, Home, I’m Darling combines high farce and drama to interrogate gender roles. By Peter Craven.

Home, I’m Darling

Nikki Shiels and Toby Truslove in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Home, I’m Darling.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Home, I’m Darling: the fractured asyntactical title dislocating expectations is appropriate for a somewhat mad British comedy-drama about a woman in her 30s who decides to live her life – as far as her imagination and her resources will stretch – as if she were in the 1950s.

Sarah Goodes’ very able production is crowned by an exceptionally starry and brilliant performance from Nikki Shiels in the central role of the self-conceived housewife and is buttressed by a shrewd, finely observed performance by the great Jane Turner as the heroine’s unillusioned mother. The costume and set design by Renée Mulder are delicious and the whole production kicks off the year with that rarest of things, a must-see stage show.

Laura Wade’s play is a very clever, not unrisky juxtaposition of the dream of the ’50s – all flouncy dresses and skipping girly enthusiasms rendered in vibrant Doris Day/Rock Hudson colour – with the realities of contemporary rigour in a two-income world that can counteract the imaginative conception of marital fulfilment. It’s a wily, seductive piece because it plays on the longing for a moral, stable and more sumptuous world while also containing within it – not least from Turner’s diatribes as the mother – a contrasting portrait of cold and greyness, of a world hunched around inadequate fires as women slaved and men radiated decency and reliability while committing serial adultery.

It’s a subtler play than it initially looks, even though it hovers around cartoon stereotypes from every perspective and vantage point. Initially we’re confronted – maybe we’re comforted, but the spectacle creates apprehension – by a campy, swanning Shiels dancing about the stage with wild halloos of self-delight and retro gorgeousness. It’s one of those “oh no” moments where the audience imagines it’s going to be drowned in a bubble bath of nostalgia, comically but cheaply conjured.

In fact, it’s more like an alienation device camouflaged as a cheap enchantment. We think we are in the ’50s but then we see the music of a bygone world is coming to us through a laptop’s speakers. Gradually, we note that the other characters are not dressed up for yesteryear, or at least are not investing the charade with the intensity of infatuation. Shiels’ character dresses and cleans and entertains – and, Lord knows, emotes – like a wind-up doll from 1954, but her husband (Toby Truslove) is trying to make do with his real estate job, and his boss (Izabella Yena) is a lot more at home with a pint at the pub to celebrate a sale than she is with downing cocktails and cupcakes. There’s a vaguely acquiescent friend (Susie Youssef) who borrows books about the glory of Cold War comfort living while misapprehending one title as How to Ruin Your Home, rather than Run. Her slightly wolfish husband (Peter Paltos) ends up snagged by Me Too accusations and comes across neither as a fiend nor lilywhite.

All this is done with a relaxed, zigzagging sprawl that ever so slightly recalls those effortlessly charming comedies of long ago that J. C. Williamson’s might import from the West End, with Googie Withers and John McCallum strutting their stuff for an antipodean audience. The difference is that Shiels’ character is the reanimation of a ghostly world and she brings to it a frenzy and inwardness, the fascination of which doesn’t cease to be funny even as it becomes steadily more dangerous.

In the midst of things, a real-world, material crisis sets the cat among the pigeons. Then – brilliantly and audaciously – there is a flashback in which we see Shiels, dressed in retro-ish slacks, setting the whole ’50s fantasy in motion. And so, after considerable dialectic – including Turner’s great maternal lamentation concerning a world without birth control or female autonomy or true fidelity from upstanding men – there is a resolution that satisfies the complex and contrasted expectations aroused by the play’s commingling of farce and rhetoric.

Not the least impressive thing about Home, I’m Darling is the way the second act, with its long racketing debate, rides on the back of the furs and slinky elegance of the first half without any sense of diminution.

The cast is consistently good. You wonder if Truslove’s very homely husband would have lured a figure as sumptuous as Shiels, if he should be a little more of a leading man under the skin. And perhaps, too, if Yena, as his boss, might be a bit bigger histrionically than she was on opening night. But Goodes’ direction is nothing if not surefooted and all the supporting actors are exactly adjusted to the dance-like extrapolation of this production. Paltos, for instance, has an experimental “what’s too far?” set of gestural gropes with Shiels, who tells him in a voice of absolute gravity and truth that the last descent, down her back, is “borderline”. It’s her moment but the interplay between them is adept.

And so is everything else in this elegant, enriched production. Mulder’s set design, which incorporates an upstairs where people change and throw themselves on beds, satisfies the eye while also stretching the way Home, I’m Darling represents a kind of countertext to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a point Goodes is explicit about in the program. It’s also interesting that although the play has, a bit tellingly, a joke about pregnancy, and the austerities of incessant childbearing are part of Turner’s aria of disdain for cold grimy yesterdays, Home, I’m Darling almost artlessly sets the trap of exhibiting a marriage where no one talks about children. At some level the heroine is the child of her own regressive fantasy of going back into the doll’s house, which makes her a very post-’50s woman indeed.

All this is delicately balanced and there is an expertness to the way the contradictions are allowed to teeter. It is not (to cite a ’50s exemplar) Douglas Sirk at the height of his powers nor, to take a recent heir of the deep humanism and vibrant colouration he was capable of, Almodóvar in his tragicomic mode with every note poignant, every look of woe or wonder given its full weight. But it has a savage beauty of its own, a dance that is hectic and has its own human heart. As the ageing mother, affable and unconsoled, Turner provides a superb portrait of an unpretentious woman who knows who she is: quiet, bare and unimpressed by all the ballroom dancing and ballyhoo of her daughter’s world constructed of dreams and gestures.

And Shiels is marvellous. This is one of the best performances the Australian stage has seen in years. It is succulent and seems for long risk-defying stretches to work by a principle of excess, as if she has become the apotheosis of the character she is striving for. But then it keeps coming down to earth so that Shiels constantly reminds us of the sexy, funny woman who is forever chasing her own tail and who has the power of personality to put all these saner people through their paces. It is a magnificently judged performance, full of music and devilment and an ability to summon up whole new continents of feeling while creating a figure who grows and growls and endlessly surprises. In Shiels’ hands the character amounts to a more complex and loveable figure than the stereotypes she might seem reducible to.

Shiels has proved herself to be an essentially truthful actor with great stillness and power of understatement. In Home, I’m Darling, she also displays an ability to pluck from the air a game of truth and dare with the audience, so that she veers between elaborate and spellbinding artifice of a high comic kind and sudden flashes of nakedness and raw emotion. The upshot might look incoherent in a lesser actor but here it’s simply the signature of an actress of the first rank. Home, I’m Darling shows the full sweep of Shiels’ maturity, her magnitude, her ability to create delight and fear and awe.

Sarah Goodes is terrific at allowing actresses with talent to shine and shine. That was superbly articulated in Sarah Peirse’s extraordinary performance as Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland, just as it created something wonderful when Helen Morse and Melita Jurisic played those weird haunting old dames in Annie Baker’s John. She should let her hair down with the great roles of the classic modern theatre. It’s enough to make you fantasise about what she could do if she directed Shiels as Hedda Gabler or Miss Julie, as Olive in the Doll, as Maggie the Cat or Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Home delivery".

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Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.

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