The Basement (fmr. Silo)
Sept 23-Oct 4 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

“BEST not drop the baby!” How many first-time dads have heard this joke and inwardly groaned. After all, in today’s modern world, surely Dads are as well-equipped as Mums to handle the pressures of full-time parenting. It is with this thought that Laurence Dolan’s new play, Daddy’s Home, opens.

In what starts as a fast-paced comedy, Bruce (Aaron Ward), a first time father, is left holding the baby when his lawyer wife Rebecca (Li-Ming Hu) goes back to work. Proving that nothing is cuter than an earnest dad, he infiltrates the world of career mums – a world that is not so much oestrogen-rich as oestrogen saturated. But this play avoids cheap laughs at incompetent dads. Bruce is able not only to efficiently handle the messy baby side of things with less fuss than the average first-time mum, he also cooks, cleans and reads childcare manuals. In short, he appears to be the perfect man – even showing sympathy to oversensitive and dominating Rebecca, who is caught between her maternal instincts and career drive.

Dolan, an Auckland playwright, drew on his real life experiences as a stay-at-home Dad for this play. In tackling the topic of parenting and gender equality – from a different angle to the usual – he avoids the temptation to stereotype or go for predictable jokes (though some do creep in). Dolan takes potshots at those who make assumptions about the motivations of stay-at-home Dads, and makes some interesting points about how this little-understood group are perceived by the rest of the community. Because of these and other factors, Daddy’s Home is much more intelligent and meaningful than an earlier ATC offering this year, also on the topic of parenting.

In a scene that establishes the cast’s talent for comedic timing, Bruce attends coffee group with stressed mum Tracy (Cherie James), gossipy Donna (Elizabeth McGlinn) and hippie Sally (Hu again). What follows is a hilarious condensation of possibly all the nightmare conversations Dolan has ever had at coffee groups. A warning: just as coffee group mothers have no-holds-barred, so does this play. There are “full and frank” disclosures of everything from orgasmic experience to what comes out of baby’s nether regions.

The talented cast is one of this play’s obvious assets. The dialogue is fast and tight, the audience eased into a sense of fun from the outset. The three women play a variety of characters each, from the aforementioned coffee group mums to a bolshy waitress, a doctor and a detective. The last key character is Roger (Jonathan Hodge), a more experienced Dad that Bruce meets at a local café. The two dads start meeting as part of their daily routine, initially to compare notes, but also for good old fashioned mateship and a sense of solidarity.

Hodge is perfect as the pedantic, advice-dispensing dad of an older toddler, giving lectures on everything from baby buggy aerodynamics to correct car seat placement. Hu and Ward, playing the saintly Bruce and his wife Rebecca, display a physical ease and enjoyment which make them a joy to watch. Ward has impeccable comedic timing and subtlety whilst Hu plays against type, proving her considerable comedic talent. It’s good to see some colourblind casting decisions at last. McGlinn and James give good support, with James’ turn as frazzled and abandoned mum Tracy deserving special mention for its blend of pathos and comedy.

Unfortunately, one thing that does let Daddy’s Home down is its set. The simple background draping – looking like pastel bedsheets, although I hope that’s not the case – transmits backstage noise and movement. The plastic dolls used as baby substitutes look rather too… um, plastic, though the Plunket carseats add an authentic touch. Possibly cloth bundles or mime would have worked just as well for babies. There is a great deal of heavy furniture that is moved around by the cast between scenes, but this takes so long that it detracts from the energy of the piece. I felt a simpler, shorter set change could have helped hook the audience into the story a little earlier. However, the costumes, including some sponsored suits from Cue, were spot-on.

Although Daddy’s Home has been marketed as a comedy, it’s not all light and bright. Rather, Dolan takes as his topic the conflicts and anxieties of parenting. He makes the point that there is no right way to do it, only the requirement to really care. And to make his point, there are some surprising – and dark – twists in the tale. But that may already be giving away too much.

This is a play that can be enjoyed on many levels – from its comedic moments which had every parent in the audience roaring in recognition, to the emotion-junkies like myself getting a fix. The play is also a thoughtful exploration of issues around modern parenting, and as such should appeal to a wide audience. The ending is both satisfying and poetic, leaving the audience with a warm glow. I highly recommend seeing Daddy’s Home.