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REVIEW: AMERICAN NIGHTMARE BY MATTHEW BULGO AT THE OTHER ROOM BY GARETH FORD-ELLIOTT

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Opening The Other Room’s The Violence Series autumn season is Matthew Bulgo’s American Nightmare. Bulgo’s third play with Cardiff’s pub theatre, this rendition tackles class and the flaws in the reality of the ‘American Dream’.

American Nightmare follows two pairs of very different kinds of people. The elite class, represented by Clara (Ruth Ollman) and Greg (Chris Gordon) plotting a new scheme to control and exploit the working and under classes, which are represented by Daria (Lowri Izzard) and Elwood (Gwydion Rhys).

Clara and Greg sit, drinking and dining in a New York skyscraper as Clara entices Greg with an extremely lucrative business proposal that will change the landscape of America both physically and culturally.

Meanwhile, in a bunker somewhere in America, Daria and Elwood are taking part in a programme that aims to produce a set of obedient, low incentive driven workers under the orders from a character named ‘The Program’.

The writing from Matthew Bulgo is perfectly good for the most part. Clara and Greg are a little too prominent and really it’s mostly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. The characters exist mainly to provide context rather than any real drama or story within itself. Context that could be more creatively explained and unravelled in a less predictive manner.

The story mainly comes from Daria and Ellwood, this is where we get tension and see in depth, complex characters. Daria’s story arch is brilliant and everything she does makes complete sense in the context of the play. Every move is calculated perfectly from Bulgo.

Ellwood is a well written, realistic character for who you feel both sympathy and frustration. He has his ideas of how the world is and is firm in being resilient in the face of it, but at his heart just wants to get away from it all and live off the land.

The direction from Sara Lloyd is understated. Lloyd expertly controls the manipulation and psychology between the two sets of characters that drives the drama and tension of the play. This is American Nightmare’s real strength and Lloyd makes the most of it.

Lloyd is accompanied by an excellent production team with Delyth Evans’ set in particular standing out. The highlight of which is a pair of sliding doors that part to unveil the elite and close to lock the poor in to the bunker.

Katy Morison’s lighting is simple, yet effective, working in conjuncture with Simon Clode’s videography that transitions the scenes. Tic Ashfield’s sound design doing its bit which blends nicely without invading the rest of the production.

Lowri Izzard is fantastic, perfectly displaying Daria’s journey and ulterior motives subtly throughout the play with the use of body movements and tone.

Gwydion Rhys is completely believable if not only for a poor Southern accent. His facial expressions are great as he transforms into Elwood. His descent is a shining light of the play and Rhys is a huge reason for this.

It’s hard to criticise Ruth Ollman and Chris Gordon but also hard to take too much from their performances. They have good chemistry and do their job well, but their characters don’t have much depth to delve into.

The main downer on the acting is Richard Harrington as ‘The Program’ who appears via video. As an authority figure with no remorse, he feels quite soft and unbelievable in the role.

There is one issue that should not go unspoken in criticism of the play.

To ignore race is a complete whitewashing of the issue of class in America. They are intrinsically linked and whilst a white writer may not feel it appropriate to pass comment the play is much weaker for overlooking this gaping hole in its content.

This is a play set in a dystopian America – but what is written in fiction only holds worth when considered in the context of it relates to real life. It is impossible to talk about poverty, class and the American Dream in America without speaking about race if you want to speak with true credibility.

Ignoring race is potentially problematic considering what is suggested in this play has literally happened and continues to happen to people of colour in the USA. This is reality for some, this is what is happening.

The play is exaggerated reality, yes. But all this play does is exaggerate the realities of people of colour in America with a white face. If accidental a huge stroke of misfortune. If intentionally ignoring the race aspect to poverty and class in the USA, problematic.

The excuse of “that’s not what the play is about” isn’t valid here. The writer simply must tackle it to some extent. This is a whitewashing of the issue it deals with and the play is weaker for it.

Not to take away from what is there which is technically good writing, excellent production and some great acting. The issues with American Nightmare are what is missing in its content rather than its generally strong core.

American Nightmare at The Other Room, Cardiff
10th September – 29th September 2019
Written by Matthew Bulgo
Directed by Sarah Lloyd
Starring:
Lowri Izzard as Daria
Gwydion Rhys as Elwood
Ruth Ollman as Clara
Chris Gordon as Greg
Richard Harrington as The Program
Designer: Delyth Evans
Lighting Designer: Katy Morison
Sound Designer/Composer: Tic Ashfield
Videographer: Simon Clode
Production Manager: Rhys Williams
Stage Manager: Hattie Wheeler
Assistant Director: Duncan Hallis
Casting Director: Nicola Reynolds
Production photography: Kirsten McTernan
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Associate Director: Matthew Holmquist
Accent Coach: Emma Stevens-Johnson
BSL Interpreter: Sami Thorpe
Set Builder: Will Goad

Review Home, I’m Darling, A Theatr Clwyd/ National Theatre Co-production by Gareth Williams

Update : the production is transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre for a limited season this January. Booking can be made at the highlighted link above.
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Travelling along the sun-drenched roads of North Wales in the heat of an early July evening, I wondered whether it was the right time to be going to sit in a theatre. But Home, I’m Darling is worth suffering a bit of sweat for. It may have been warm in the Emlyn Williams Theatre, but that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying Laura Wade’s brand-new play. With a sizzling set, a bunch of colourful characters, and a blooming good narrative blossoming with resonant themes, this is a must-see for the summer.

As I entered the auditorium, I gasped with amazement at the sheer size and scope of the set. To be greeted by a full scale model of a house was not what I expected. I was positively overwhelmed by the sheer level of detail in its interiors and furnishings. The work of designer Anna Fleishle and her team is nothing short of remarkable. It transports us immediately into the world of the 1950s, where we meet a “sickeningly happy” couple played by Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Humans) and Richard Harrington (Hinterland, Lark Rise to Candleford). Parkinson plays the doting housewife to Harrington’s sporting gentleman. Set to the music of Mr Sandman, there is an air of pristine perfection about this opening scene. The song exudes a dream-like state in which these two characters exist and, indeed, as Harrington’s Johnny pops on his hat and coat, takes his lunchbox packed by Parkinson’s Judy, and kisses his wife goodbye, it all feels rather like a Sunday afternoon TV movie. So when Parkinson pulls out an iPad from a drawer, it creates a moment of dissonance that reverberates on the saccharine glass of this play’s squeaky –clean window.

Parkinson gives an accomplished performance as Judy, an idealist who delights in the idea of immersing herself in the 1950s by becoming a full-time housewife. It is not just the décor that oozes a nostalgic charm. Along with some incredibly elegant dresses, Parkinson’s slightly RP-toned accent and gliding movement paint a picture of a simple existence far removed from the complications of modern life. Judy is a woman who has chosen this life of frugality and servitude. Parkinson has her defend this choice with the kind of razor-sharp wit that is a staple of her acting persona. Even the impassioned speech of her feminist mother (Sian Thomas) seems to have little effect on her. It is a succinct and timely reminder of all that women have fought for over the past 100 years. It may not have broken through the resolute edge that Parkinson provides Judy with, but it was powerful to hear as an audience member. Such a resolute appearance is marked by an air of vulnerability however. Judy has lost herself in the pursuit of her ‘50s dream. It is left to Johnny to help her find herself again. Harrington invests warmth and loving care into his character. He could not be further removed from his troubled and brooding character in Hinterland. When he does get angry, it is a tone that will be familiar to fans of the BBC Wales crime drama. It seems that anger is what Harrington does best. Yet there is a distinctly soft side to Johnny that shows another side to Harrington’s acting ability that I’ve not seen before. It was refreshing to see, and proves his worth as one of Wales’ finest contemporary actors.

Sadly, we don’t get to see near enough of another of Wales’ finest. In my opinion, Sara Gregory is up there with Eve Myles in terms of her acting ability and characterisation. Her turn as branch manager and Johnny’s boss Alex in Home, I’m Darling is short but unsurprisingly sweet. She brings a professional charisma and expert flair to her character that makes her a formidable force for the short time she is on stage. When her, Parkinson and Harrington are together, it is one of the most electrifying scenes of the whole play. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay complete the cast, both giving solid performances as husband and wife duo Fran and Marcus. Such is the quality of their characterisation that they could easily be the lead characters in another story. It is testament to Laura Wade’s writing that, instead, we have them occupying this space as minor, but no less significant, characters to Parkinson and Harrington’s leads.

Due to move to the National Theatre in London later this month, Home, I’m Darling is worth catching if you are in or around North East Wales. Director Tamara Harvey and her team have again excelled themselves with a production that is just as, if not even more memorable, than 2017’s Uncle Vanya. The set is certainly as iconic as the one created for Uncle Vanya, and the cast that has been assembled is again oozing with quality. Katherine Parkinson feels like she was made for the part of Judy. Richard Harrington is brilliant as her husband Johnny. Sara Gregory and the rest of the cast are given characters that could quite easily be lead parts in an alternative version of events. Massive credit must go to Laura Wade for creating such an inventive and mesmeric play. She has created something that perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist, and that includes the weather at present. Amidst the current spell of sunny weather, it is worth venturing indoors for an evening in order to see this wonderfully colourful creation.

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gareth

Gareth Williams