Hir review: Felicity Huffman shines as disorderly housewife in absurdist queer comedy

Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman is the comedic core of the 2024 London revival of Taylor Mac’s absurdist black comedy, Hir – here’s our review.

Mac created something of a revolutionary theatre show on gender expression, homogeneity and the constraints of the nuclear family when Judy (Mac’s pronoun) debuted Hir in 2015 – let alone when the cult US artist began writing it in 1996.

There’s newly instated, grammar-obsessed matriarch Paige, played with unhinged vigour by post-prison Huffman (she was jailed for two weeks for her part in the 2019 college admissions scandal), who, after a life spent under the thumb of her abusive husband Arnold, played by Simon Startin, is rejoicing in the fact that he’s been left incapacitated by a stroke.

As a form of revenge, or liberation, she is bringing the family home Arnold built into manic disarray (cleaning is banned, books are put in the fridge, the kitchen table is allowed nowhere near the kitchen). If she has to spritz her disabled husband with water, dress him as a clown or feed him oestrogen smoothies in order to maintain the hegemony, she will.

Felicity Huffman (R) makes her comeback in Hir, alongside Simon Startin. (Pamela Reith)

Paige is drawing inspiration from her child Max (Thalía Dudek), a teen transitioning into a gay man who uses ze/hir pronouns – hence the show’s title – as she looks to a future unrestricted by the rules and regulations of modern America. Their roof is decorated with an “LGBTTSQQIAA” flag, and they have loose plans to join a genderqueer convent. 

But when prodigal son Isaac (Steffan Cennydd) returns from three years away at war in Afghanistan with severe, vomit-inducing post-traumatic stress disorder and an apparent drug-abuse problem, he’s disgusted to see his cereal-box family has turned into what he deems “froot loops”. Cue a fraught battle between returning to a life of heteronormative stability in the status quo and reimagining what it means to be American.

At its best, Hir is riotously funny. Huffman is firmly in the driver’s seat as she veers between bonkers eccentricity and sharp, caustic wit, not too unlike that which was frequently spat by her Housewives character Lynette Scavo. Particularly in the first half, laughs-out-loud frequently filled the disarmingly intimate, 200-capacity Park Theatre, and at the end of the show’s darker second half, where Dudek and Cennydd particularly get to shine, a standing ovation was a necessity. 

The cardboard-box set, evidently a metaphor for the boxes in which we still confine ourselves, is another piece of the Hir puzzle that makes it work. Designed by Ceci Calf and filled to the edges with laundry piles, lava lamps and tattered lampshades, it adds an extra layer of chaos that brings the atmosphere to somewhere between funhouse and toy chest. 

But Hir won’t be enjoyed by everybody. While at its heart, it’s a radical exploration of gender and upending societal expectations, it takes on a slightly muckier meaning when set against the culture wars of 2024.

Quips and questions the characters discuss that should otherwise enlighten – what if the Mona Lisa was trans? Are we all a little gay, considering we all touch ourselves? Is the story of Noah’s Ark transphobic? – now come off slightly, and unintentionally, as sticks with which to beat the LGBTQ+ community, given the current political climate. It’s occasionally uncomfortable as, at times, Paige and Max appear as a Fox News interpretation of what it means to be queer.

Simon Startin, Felicity Huffman and Steffan Cennydd (R) in Hir. (Pamela Reith)

But Hir isn’t about offering solutions or telling people how they should or shouldn’t live their lives. Its director, Steven Kunis, said it best: the show leaves more questions than answers. It leaves us wondering whether what we’ve been told about life – on topics as mundane as household chores, or as seismic as gender identity – is true, or able to be reformed and reimagined.

On a far smaller scale, it does offer one answer with regard to the question of redemption for its lead star and Oscar nominee. Hir is Huffman’s comeback show, following a recent apology for her part in the admissions scandal. If her riveting, wildly entertaining performance is anything to go by, she’s ready for a fully fledged return to stage and screen in the very near future. 

★★★★☆

Hir is at Park Theatre, in London’s Finsbury Park, until Saturday 16 March.

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