Nikki Shiels in rehearsals for Laura Wade's <i>Home, I'm Darling</i>.

Nikki Shiels in rehearsals for Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling.

“There is a sense that domesticity isn’t important and I wanted to debunk that,” says Wade. “The choices we make about how we live at home do have an impact on us and our place in the world and potentially can have an impact on other people.” Although, she stresses, she is asking questions rather than issuing answers. “Because everybody has their own right answers for how their life and their relationship works. But in the play, it feels like there are problems that come with trying to live like that in the modern world.”

Wade has two small daughters with her partner, actor Sam West. There is a little bit of her in Judy, she admits. She tries not to have too much pink around the house and would never buy toys like a miniature dustpan and brush, but she does love the cosiness of the Great British Bake-Off. “No matter how much running around they try to force into the edit, it’s comfort viewing, isn’t it?” She also loves baking itself. Even the process of making a cake is dramatically suggestive: a bowl of gloop that goes into the oven and comes out as something entirely different. “There was a point early in the development of the play when there was pretty much a cake in every scene in the first half.” It was pointed out that those nightly cakes would take too big a bite out of the props budget.

The fact is, however, that there’s a bit of all of us that hearkens to some past, real or imaginary, where we think things – not everything, but some things – were better than they are now. Wade says she is fascinated by this sort of ersatz nostalgia for things we don’t actually remember. Home I’m Darling works because the cheesy, chirpy world cooked up in ’50s sitcoms and Doris Day films – and by Doris Day herself, with her undimmable sunniness – has a genuine allure. The idea that a modern woman would set such store by cleaning behind everything is dispiriting, but those regular evening cocktails are not.

“I think that absolutely is something that draws the audience in, thinking ‘oooh, that looks nice’. In the beginning,” says Wade. “And then the play questions that choice.” Judy and John go to an annual jive weekend with their friends Marcus and Fran; Marcus is leerily enthusiastic about the era, it becomes clear, because he thinks it was a time when secretaries expected to be chased around desks. Judy’s mother Sylvia, on the other hand, is the only character who can actually remember the period her daughter has so comprehensively fetishised. “This gingham paradise you’ve made for yourself – you know it’s not real, don’t you?” she demands.

Given the current ubiquity of ’50s style, Wade felt less need to research Home, I’m Darling than Posh or the series she is writing now, which is set in Regency London. Everyone involved in the production, says Wade, talked to their own mothers and grandmothers about it. “It was really nice, that kind of generational thing.” They recalled England in the ’50s as cold and mostly grey, with wartime rationing still in force. Perhaps it was friendlier, but being intimate with your lifelong neighbours had its downside. “There used to be a line in Sylvia’s monologue about how if you did your washing any day but a Monday, it was a scandal,” says Wade. “And people would know because your sheets would be hung out to dry in the garden.” Heaven help you if you didn’t fit in; there were no online groups to help you find like minds. “You could end up feeling quite lonely if you were, for example, the only ’50s enthusiast in the village.”

It is true that the present, with its constantly transforming technologies and shifting ideas, is unnerving. “I’m fascinated by telephones,” says Wade. “Show my two-year-old any kind of rectangular shaped object and she’ll pick it up and say ‘hello’. Within my lifetime you had one telephone at the bottom of the stairs and everyone could hear your conversation. That is such a change.” The past, by contrast, appears to us as a fixed picture, where everything feels safe because it is already known. But the era that invented the spaceship and the teenager was just as tumultuous. All that retro cleaning, Wade points out, was a challenge for middle-class women who, before the war, would have expected to have hired help.

We will never fully feel that experience, however, given that we can’t travel back in time. “Which I think is a terrible shame!” says Wade. She would love to be able to beam herself back to the Regency period while she is writing about it. “Looking back on an era, it is hard to tell what it would be like day to day. What would it feel like to be one of the people who turned up at Beau Brummel’s salon every morning, just to see what he was wearing? Then going to watch a boxing match in the afternoon and then heading into parliament for a debate in the evening, because that’s just how they roll?”

Of course, it wouldn’t be any good unless she went back as an aristocrat. And as a man, to be able to witness the foment of ideas and inventions that created the industrial era. As a woman, she would either be embroidering or scrubbing some man’s front step. Just the thought of it makes you very glad, just for a moment, to be living now.

Home, I’m Darling opens at Southbank Theatre, January 20, 2020. www.mtc.com.au



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