House of America, at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre (review)

The house in House of America is not in America at all, rather it’s in a village in South Wales right next to an open-cast mine which is ominous in presence and overshadows the house where Mam (Lowri Lewis) lives with her three children. The first monologue, voiced by Mam spotlit against a pitch black background, has us hooked immediately. Delivered with engaging wry humour and a Welsh lilt veering between levity and sadness, it already hints at the darkness to come in the story.  Mam’s truck driver husband Clem left her and her children for America, where he figured the roads would be long and straight enough to park his truck.

When we meet Mam’s offspring, Sid, Gwenny and Boyo Lewis (Pete Grimwood, Evelyn Campbell and Robert Durbin in that order) the lure of America is strong in them too. No wonder, really, since they believe their father to be there (no less for the fact that he deserted them, and that they have heard nothing from him since). Moreover, Sid and Gwenny have discovered the book ‘On the Road’, the classic Beat novel by Jack Kerouac. The protagonist’s carefree, adventurous lifestyle fuelled by bottles of Bourbon sparks dreams in them of a far better world than the one they inhabit, living with their demented mother on the edge of a noisy open-cast mine and with precious little chance of employment.

House of America press 1

Photo: Photographise

The relationship between the siblings and their mother is an intense one, realistically drawn even as it descends into a tragedy which you don’t fully foresee.  The brothers and their sister are drinking partners from the beginning (it starts out as cans of Special Brew before Kerouac’s influence takes hold and it becomes whiskey by the bottle), and as the situation in the house worsens, and their mother’s mental condition deterioriates, Sid and Gwenny start to believe themselves to be Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend Joyce Johnson. Boyo can only look on in horror. An escapist dream turns nightmarish as the normal familial constraints cease to exist between the siblings, and nothing is out of bounds.

To these youngsters growing up in Wales, you can see why America is seen as the idyllic promised land.  Much to the audience’s amusement, the Lewises derive great pleasure from the fact that there’s a Welshman in the group Velvet Underground; as the family gathers round the television (nice lighting effects from Jamie Platt) to watch the film The Godfather, Mam tells us about their dog Brando who she washed to death by mistake in the washing machine, and Boyo regales us with his impression of the great mumbler Marlon Brando, after whom the dog was named. But as Boyo asks, ‘Where are our Kings?!’ He is right: the Americans have Elvis whereas the Welsh have Harry Secombe. Sid and Gwenny talk passionately about fleeing their village, of chasing the sun, but they are wholly naive about the unknown land across the ocean, and their imitations of Kerouac and Johnson turn into bizarrely accented, confused drawls.  By the time Mam’s secret is out, any grip on reality has been lost long ago, and Gwenny has totally forgotten who she was.

Written by Ed Thomas in 1989, House of America depicts a very bleak Wales in the throes of the mining crisis and this revival of the play directed by James O’Donnell brings out the desperate dreams of this dysfunctional family with its excellent script, stage design (Sorcha Corcoran) and moving acting by all of the cast.  It is an uncomfortable view of life in Wales in the 1980’s, in direct opposition to the fantasy of the freewheeling Beat life espoused by Kerouac and co. This is an accomplished production by Free Fall Productions and Ysbryd London (which promotes Welsh work in London) and an intense story about family, identity and mental illness set in a very specific time and place.

hattydaze rating: ***/*****

I attended House of America courtesy of press tickets.  House of America plays at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th July. For more details, see the website here.

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