Tuesday, 4 July 2017

REVIEW: House of America at Jack Studio Theatre

The long-standing myth of America as a promised land where all dreams come true is revived by Ed Thomas in his drama House of America. Set in the living room of the Lewis family, in the South Wales Valleys, it opens with a monologue where Mam (Lowri Lewis) introduces herself to the audience and expresses her concern for the slow and steady expansion of the open-cast mine that is threatening her house. Her husband left her many years ago to go to America with a new lover and she had to raise her three children on her own. Now young adults, the siblings are consumed by the lack of opportunities of their homeland and fervently dream of California and reuniting with their estranged father from whom they've never received any news. 

Mam has a big secret to keep, which is seriously affecting her nerves. Her daughter Gwenny (Evelyn Campbell) spends her days reading Jack Kerouac's On The Road and the poems of the Beat generation. Her two sons and former gravediggers Sid (Pete Grimwood) and Boyo (Robert Durbin) seek employment at the mine as a life-changing career advancement but, whereas the former is desperate to break-free from his current condition, the latter is more concerned about his mother's mental welfare. After borrowing Jack Kerouac's book from his sister, Sid initiates a dangerous role-play with Gwenny, which introduces some of the most dramatic undertones into Thomas' play and contributes to gradually transform it into a bloodied nightmare. 

Written at a time when the once robust Welsh mining industry was already doomed and the booming unemployment rates in the country had been patched with a degrading benefits scheme, the depiction of the dysfunctional Lewis family becomes a metaphor of the socio-economic crisis that hit Britain in the late 80's. Sorcha Corcoran sets an impoverished scene offering a visual representation of this alienated society. Rather than recreating a realistic space, its rusty metal frames and piles of coal symbolise a disadvantaged generation trapped between the end of an era and the alluring image of a brighter and more romantic future abroad. 

A punk rock soundtrack suggests some similarities with the Beat counterculture and its liberal approach to drugs and sex. In the second act, the set is flooded with crimson shades which slowly drift into darkness, according to Jamie Platt's lighting design. 

Thomas' polished style and strong characterisation allows the actors to deliver
outstanding performances, which are orchestrated into the finest detail by the experienced direction of James O'Connell. Lewis' portrayal of Mam is the spine of a play that expects each role to grow in intensity along with the dramatic unfolding of the plot. My only criticism would be to Peter Grimwood's unnatural facial expressions of rage, but this is just a marginal element in a fully-fleshed two-hour long thriller, which becomes even more gripping inside the contained space of the Jack Studio Theatre. 
Review by Marianna Meloni 

Rating: ★★★★

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