*disclaimer: I was given free tickets to American Nightmare at The Other Room in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.
“A brilliant and poignant dystopian play”
American Nightmare by Matthew Bulgo and directed by Sara Lloyd tells the socio-political story of the huge and impenetrable divide between the rich and the poor. With a dystopian feel, reminding me of George Orwell’s “1984”, H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and popular book and film series by Stephanie Meyer “The Hunger Games”, this new play is a harsh look at an extreme reality.
The poor have had the opportunity to sign up for a “better” life – one that they hope at least is better than dumpster diving. However, characters Elwood and Daria who have signed up know neither what this “better” life will consist of, nor what they will have to do to achieve it. They are pushed to physical and mental extremes, fed rations based on their performance in physical and mental tasks and told that other people are their enemy, not their friend as the play also makes commentary on morals and how far humans will go in disregarding these morals in order to achieve.
In a series of conversations between Elwood and Daria in their – what can only be described as a – bunker, and Clara and Greg at their New York City skyline dinner, the divide between the rich and poor is as clear as crystal and equally as haunting. Through this narrative structure, the audience aren’t so much told what happens, and instead have to piece the puzzle together for themselves – an aspect I truly enjoyed. Not only did you feel empathetic with Elwood and Daria in not knowing what you’ve signed up for, it kept us all the more intrigued, with eyes glued to the stage.
Powerfully owning the stage is Ruth Ollman as out-of-this-world rich American Clara, trying to persuade successful, yet humble British architect Greg (played by Chris Gordon). The fact that you don’t find out exactly what the plan is until the end keeps audiences guessing, but with clever projections of military chaos throughout, the audience can take a pretty good stab at where the plot is leading.
Down in the bunkers below, Gwydion Rhys and Lowri Izzard as Elwood and Daria respectively, are put through their paces to succeed in some sort of battle between the poor, to find the champions who can be pushed to their limits and abandon their morals to adhere to the command of the rich.
The respective relationships between Ruth Ollman and Chris Gordon, and Gwydion Rhys and Lowri Izzard, are worlds apart, yet both are captivating, believable and engaging. As persuasive, attractive, mysteriously dangerous and sharp Clara, Ruth does an excellent job at keeping the audiences on the edge of their seats as though they were also being interviewed for the position she is offering. As awkward yet powerful, humble yet determined Greg, Chris does an equally impressive job at portraying his position as one that is below Clara, without backing down or appearing weak. Their conversations back and forth intrigue the audience, make us laugh through awkwardness and both have us hanging on their every word, thirsty to know more.
From the first word Ruth said, to the way she held her posture and drank her martini, audiences are already aware of her mysteriously dangerous nature, but special mention goes to herfor her beyond incredible monologue (that I have just seen is over 4 pages long in the A5 script – bravo for remembering that!) From the excellent words by Matthew Bulgo, Ruth brings this character to life with this captivating monologue; her intonation, physicality, even the glimmer in her eye does an excellent job at painting a picture and painting the nature of her true character.
While not given as much text, and more acting to Clara’s beck and will, Chris does a fantastic job at creating a very real and relatable character and deserves as much praise as his co-star.
Upon every new scene between Elwood and Darla, I found myself changing my mind at which of the two of them I thought was better. They each excelled in their own way, through bringing characters to life, demonstrating the extent of human struggle and how far we can be pushed, and even just making audiences laugh.
Both characters have some excellent development in the show, again down to the writing from Matthew Bulgo, but this means nothing without some equally-excellent actors to bring such words to life. We see Daria grow and change more than anyone in the show, and Lowri Izzard does an impressive job at bringing the audience along with her on her journey. Her relationship with Gwydion Rhys as Elwood was complicated, and the pair do a fantastic job of portraying the idea that they are 50% friends and 50% enemies – a tricky balance to get right, yet very well achieved by both.
At the start of the show I was doubtful that they’d both maintain their tricky accents throughout, with Elwood having a strong Tennessee and Daria having a Kansas accent, but neither faulted once.
An intriguing plot that comments on an extreme version of reality was brought to life with superb actors, truly warranting this production five stars across the board.
What I personally really loved about the show was its simplicity yet complexity – the stage was simple, as was the set and costumes, yet every small touch created a huge effect. Our poor “contestants” in the biggest mind-game since The Hunger Games are dressed somewhat like pieces in a game with their plain white tops, grey tracksuit bottoms and white plimsoles. Our rich business folk are in suits, and Clara is impressively glowing in jewels. Simple and perhaps obvious choices, but effective, nonetheless.
The way the set behind the bunker opened and closed to reveal the New York City Skyline dinner, on a slightly raised platform, was again simple and effective. It showed how the rich could so easily cut off the poor and not think about their situation when they wanted to. The New York City Skyline dinner between Carla and Greg was also set on a slightly raised platform above the bunker, again anchoring the divide between the two caste systems. Designer Delyth Evans has done a brilliant job.
Projections were also used effectively, credit going to Richard Harrington for his appearance as The Program, as well as to videographer Simon Clode, sound designer Tic Ashfield and lighting designer Katy Morison, who brilliantly brought in the context and setting without having to spell it out, as well as helping audiences to visualise video games and VR activities.
American Nightmare is an extreme take on the failure of “The American Dream” and this exciting play is well worth a watch for so many reasons. Gripping from the start and only letting go at the bows, engaging and hugely entertaining, I highly recommend this production directed by one of Wales’ most established directors Sara Lloyd, as she creates a brilliant and poignant dystopian play with some very relevant socio and political aspects.
American Nightmare runs at The Other Room until 29 September as part of The Violence Series. You can buy tickets here. Tickets this week from £8.