Ever read a book and dream of living the story contained within? Yep, we all have really. For most of us, this is a simple fantasy that takes us out of ourselves for an hour or so, then back to reality we go. However, for some people, real life may be just so bad that they try to find a way to escape and try to emulate their book hero, escaping everything else. This theme is explored in quite shocking detail in Ed Thomas’ play House of America at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley
The play starts with a single spotlight highlighting ‘Mam’ (Lowri Lewis) who tells the audience her memories of the day her husband abandoned her, and their three children, to start a new life in America. Her main memory is of Brando, the cat, and the unfortunate event that happened to him the same day.
Next, we are into the family home where Boyo (Robert Durbin) and his sister Gwenny (Evelyn Campbell) are whiling away the time waiting for their brother Sid (Pete Grimwood) to come home. When he does get in, Sid has great news for Boyo. There is a new open-cast mine coming to the hill near their house and there is the possibility of work as labourers for local men. The two boys decide to be up at the mine the next day getting these jobs. This rather sets their Mam off into one of her peculiar rants which have become a part of their lives as the years have rolled on. The nature of this rant is that the open-cast mine is no good for the family and will cause nothing but trouble. Mam knows this as among her other growing eccentricities, she has been having conversations with the mysterious Mr Snow. With nothing much else to do, the boys decide to have a party and celebrate their good luck at securing jobs – which they both believe they will get. Gwenny though is busy reading a book. It is a book that Sid has given her, possibly one of the few he has ever read. It is the story of American author Jack Kerouac and his partner Joyce Johnson. For both Sid and Gwenny, this book becomes an obsession, giving the two siblings the chance to play games where they are the stars of the book. With the money that Sid hopes to make from the job at the open-cast, he plans to go over to the USA, find his dad and tour the country just as Jack did. At this, Mam goes off again, telling her children they must stay together and be there for each other. In this atmosphere, Sid and Gwenny retreat more into the book and the world of Jack and Joyce. After all, who needs reality, and what is it anyway?
In House of America, Ed Thomas has written a very powerful play that covers quite a few themes. The overriding one for me was family loyalty. From the start, with Mam doing everything she can to keep the family together – to the point where she loses her mind – right through to the explosive ending, family is at the heart of this play. The setting is fairly depressing. A run down town and a family where a job as a labourer seems like manna from heaven means that from the start the play has the strong possibility to be very downbeat. However, Ed has put a lot of gentle humour into the writing that stops it becoming too overwhelming. My one issue was the introduction in Act II of David Palmstrom in the role of the Labourer who, to my mind, didn’t really add much to the story itself, and was a rather scary character to say the least. It felt to me that his inclusion was as a bit of a filler and I personally think we could have lost the character and maybe made the play slightly shorter. But, really who am I to judge?
The production itself was really good. Have to say, I love the Welsh accent and it was great to hear genuine accents rather than drama school Welsh. Gave a nice touch of authenticity to the entire show.Sorcha Corcoran set gave a nice feeling of a working class home, and I really loved the ‘fire’. The actors were all good and for me, the stand-out performer was Lowri Lewis as ‘Mam’. At the start, she was just a lovely Welsh woman telling a story, the sort you would see on Jackanory at tea-time. But as the play progressed and her mental capacity started to fade in and out Lowri took ‘Mam’ from lucid to raving, from honest to scheming and from tyrant to whispering conspirator beautifully. Using her voice, face and body, Lowri made ‘Mam’ such a real person, it was impossible to not believe in her.
Overall then, House of America is a surprising play in so many ways. A fairly gentle first act was followed by a massively emotional explosive second that took me completely by surprise in its intensity. Not always easy to watch, there was no way I was taking my eyes off the stage until the final switching off of the lights and well-deserved curtain call.
Review by Terry Eastham
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+)