The sins of the previous generation are manifested in the current one, what goes around comes around, and there’s nothing new under the sun. And yet House of America is far from dull and predictable – it is, in a word, a paradox. Tragedy in the form of on-stage deaths has happened in theatre since the Roman Empire, but this production has managed to make it seem so fresh and convincing. Striking a balance between dark comedy, a borderline absurdist narrative and good old-fashioned theatrical pathos (never overdone here), this is one of those plays that is always relevant to contemporary events, as it’s deep as it is wide.
For instance, people, whether in Wales in the 1980s or in London in 2017, are always a few payslips away from being in financial difficulties. Meanwhile, mental health issues and misuse of drugs and alcohol continue to affect a significant number of people. What’s more is that no prior knowledge of a source material (On The Road, a novel by Jack Kerouac) is required before seeing the show, despite the narrative in that novel forming a major part of the storyline for this play. I’ve never read anything by Kerouac, to the best of my recollection, and a reference Mam (Lowri Lewis) makes to a Mr Snow made me think of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel rather than Kerouac’s novel.
Mam’s three offspring, Boyo (Robert Durbin), Sid (Peter Grimwood) and Gwenny (Evelyn Campbell), are both individually and collectively very believable, if not always likeable, characters. There are some universal themes that emerge, one about this patch of Wales being this family’s home. This isn’t the first show in which locals stand their ground against the possibility of losing their properties for the sake of redevelopment. But the grass is always greener on the other side, as an exchange between Sid and a labourer (David Palmstrom) demonstrates. Sid, looking for work, wishes he were in the labourer’s place, while the labourer has lost his mind (or so he claims), such is the mundane nature of his job.
There’s a disparity between one’s dreams and one’s current reality, but this doesn’t stop Gwenny from continuing to pursue those dreams and desires, even to the point where the consequences are nothing short of destructive and disastrous. Mam, too, is not exactly psychologically stable, but in the midst of both internal and external problems facing the Lewis household (or what’s left of it), there are still moments of sheer hilarity that bring the house down. Every so often I wondered whether I ought to be laughing at certain punchlines in the context in which they were delivered, but the guilt was always fleeting.
The lighting (Jamie Platt) was impressive, allowing the audience to focus on certain parts of the stage, and reducing the amount of work required at each scene change, as the set largely remained static, leaving only props to be shifted around. There are two things I take away from this highly emotive production. The first is that a family show does not necessarily make for family viewing. The second, more pertinently, is that while it is good to move on from the past, the past should be acknowledged rather than snubbed. In this storyline, the past is buried, in more ways than one, with unfavourable implications for all. I still have questions about what happened in the play, or rather what may or may not have happened, and not everything is resolved before the curtain call. All things considered, this is a dynamic production pulsating with the frustrations at the cards life has dealt its characters.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This is Wales.
This is the Lewis family.
This is the House of America.
Abandoned by their father for a new life in California, siblings Sid, Gwenny and Boyo are left to care for their mysterious mammy and her growing eccentricities.
With the new mine encroaching in on the family home, their secrets are unearthed and dreams of America soon unravel. As tragedy unfolds, was reality ever what it seemed?
“You think the house is rocking, you haven’t seen nothing yet.”
Explosive and passionate, House of America received international acclaim when first staged in Cardiff in 1988. It later transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in 1989 before being made into a feature film in 1996. Ed Thomas’s other work includes Hinterland / Y Gwyll shot in Welsh and English for S4C and BBC Wales. He is also the founding member and creative director of Cardiff based film and TV production company Fiction Factory.
House of America
by Ed Thomas
produced by Free Fall productions and Ysbryd London
directed by James O’Donnell
Tues 27 June to Sat 15 July 2017 at 7.45pm
(Contains adult themes, suitable for 16+)