Ah, the eighties. What a glorious time of nihilism, high-waisted jeans and no work. The lack of hope that characterises the eighties is what you get in bounds in Ed Thomas’s House of America. What you also get is three under-thirties struggling to escape from the Welsh valleys, or, more pointedly, the house they grew up in and their mentally fragile mother. Mrs Lewis, Boyo, Gwenny and Sid are living on top of one another, with the threat of the cast mines looming over their simple lives and their secrets adding to their claustrophobia. To attempt to escape, Gwenny and Sid dream of travelling to America, seeing their estranged father, and being like Joyce and Jack from On the Road, while Boyo remains reluctant.
While Thomas’s play conveys an overwhelming sense of hopelessness well, it is flawed in places. The cast mines initially work as an effective metaphor for the threat of modernity and the secrets that will tear the family apart, but the constant repetitions of ‘They’re coming closer,’ and ‘They’ll destroy this house,’ undermine it, making the play quite expositional. In fact, exposition is one of the major flaws of the script: the audience is often on the cusp of figuring something out (usually due to some excellent facial expressions or body language) but is denied the privilege through speech.
However, flaws with the text aside, this production was raw, chilling and uncomfortable to watch: the things I like best about theatre. Director Tamar Williams utilised the small space of the dance studio brilliantly, and the actors’ breaking of the fourth wall added to the play’s theme of suffocation. Williams’s interpretation was also brave in that it allowed the audience to become aware of the play’s theatricality subtly: the moving and banging of chairs to suggest a temporal or spatial shift was an excellent decision, with the sounds echoing the intrusive industrialism.
Another triumph of this production was the inclusion of music (provided by a band led by Musical Director Nick Charlesworth). While the band could play rock and roll classics with ease, the real treat was the improvised traditional Welsh music, and the beautiful singing that often accompanied it.
This play deals with a variety of issues, including two murders, mental illness and incest; this is a script that asks for a lot from its actors. The onstage chemistry and tension between Lily Blacksell and Jack Alexander was palpable, and I wish that the script would have allowed more space for this. Blacksell and Alexander could communicate their emotions through a series of subtle facial expressions, and their interactions were incredibly convincing (and therefore very difficult to watch).
Blacksell’s final monologue was the highlight of the play: sensitively interpreted, she captured the misfortune of Gwenny’s situation – one that is entirely beyond her control – to make her a tragic, although not sympathetic, character. Blacksell was able to move Gwenny from a girlish, daydreaming woman who wants to be like Joyce Johnson to a severely ill and troubled person.
Jack Alexander was also able to capture Sid’s daydreaming personality well: his panic during his final scenes was intense. Alternatively, Jacob Lovick and Mary Davies were at their best when providing dark humour. Lovick’s comedic timing was consistently on point, while Davies was excellent at providing Mrs Lewis’s unwitting comedy.
During its first act, I wasn’t really sure where House of America was heading. However, its second act provided the punches I was looking for. The play perhaps tries to throw a few too many, if I’m being honest: the truth about Clem Lewis or the incestuous relationship would provide sufficient drama for one play. However, Davies’s production is sensitively directed, imaginatively realised, host to some good performances, and contains some excellent live music, making this a play I am glad I haven’t missed.
by Jenna Clake