Review: American Nightmare in infused with great characters and dark humour

Richard Harrington in American Nightmare. Picture by Kirsten McTernan.

Emily Garside

American Nightmare is the first in the Autumn season of The Other Room – Cardiff’s first pub theatre.

In a new twist, Dan Jones has curated a season of interlinked new plays in the form of ‘The Violence Series’.

American Nightmare by Matthew Bulgo will be followed by The Story by Tess Berry-Hart, and then Hela by Mari Izzard. The premise being these all take place in the same ‘universe’. Box sets for theatre, as it were.

American Nightmare takes two parallel narratives to weave a tale that takes on big concepts through small scale interactions. One story takes place in a skyscraper overlooking New York, the other in a bunker, somewhere in America.

Both tell crucial aspects of the ‘American Nightmare’ about to unfold – already unfolding – beyond their respective walls.

It’s best experienced like a film thriller, without foreknowledge of the setting or plot. But the basic premise is around those making the decisions and impacting the world, and those existing in what they leave behind.

Two people in two rooms, massively impacting the world beyond. And it makes for an intriguing human and political drama.

This offers the performers a huge challenge – they must distil the broader concepts, communicating big ideas, while also offering human characters.

But it is one they rise to admirably. Ruth Ollman is brilliantly dry-witted as Clara. She commands the scenes she shares with Chris Gordon with ease, while he bounces off her effectively, playing the unwitting, unsure fly trapped in her corporate net.

His affable charm pulls the audience into their part of this world and his own humour and charm in the role make his actions not only understandable but logical.

While Ollman has fun with the ‘darker’ side of her character she exudes the danger that Clara represents.

In the other scenes, Lowri Izzard and Gwydion Rhys have real chemistry and succeed in communicating the growth in familiarity between them.

Rhys is charming and funny, and the sweet innocence he reveals about his character at the climax of the piece gives the performance – and the story – an additional resonance.

Izzard also gives an energetic and engaging performance. All four are engaging, and smart, exploring the wider themes the story grapples with through their believable character portrayals.

This split narrative is skilfully directed by Sara Lloyd. Each world is established quickly and effectively, and Lloyd moves deftly between the scenes with the help of some simple yet effective design from Delyth Evans.

The starkness of the grey backdrop works for both industrial complex and the high-end restaurant. The elevated platform on which Clara and Greg are seated is a beautifully simple way of portraying their elevated status – literally and metaphorically.

Layered on top of this is video design from Simon Clode, a powerful visual tool which hammers the audience with images of the world in chaos.

Richard Harrington or ‘The Program’, despite only being present in video form, feels fully integrated into the play, rather than an add-on.

Finally, the transitions between scenes, with sliding doors at the back of the set add a level of slickness. Once again, the direction and design show the scale of what can be achieved within the small space of The Other Room.

Ruth Ollman and Christopher Gordon in American Nightmare. Picture by Kirsten McTernan.

‘What if’

Similarly, Bulgo’s writing shows how much can be achieved with a seemingly ‘small’ narrative.

While limited to five characters (the four we see on stage and the projected Richard Harrington), Bulgo tackles are big ideas and sweeping concepts.

It’s deceptively simple, even when he finally reveals what ties the narratives together.

Bulgo’s strength is in his characters, and as a result the Daria/Elwood story is the stronger of the two – given more time and space, he’s able to tease out elements of both their own backstory, and give the audience just enough of the wider story to play with.

The Clara/Greg story, while by necessity narrower in terms of characters, and wider story, is however crafted with precision to inform both Elwood/Daria’s story and the broader narrative.

And it’s precision along with character that is to be applauded in Bulgo’s writing here. In telling near-future or apocalyptic stories, it’s easy to talk in broad strokes, assuming that unlike contemporary ‘real world’ storytelling it doesn’t matter.

Bulgo understands that it does matter, and the detail and precision are there in the story. This aside, crucially, despite taking on broad and often dark subject matter, Bulgo infuses the characters with humour.

They aren’t dry or dark – or even when they are dark, they’re darkly funny. And in a world- both inside the play and out – where things are dark enough, that wry humour is essential.

American Nightmare is an engaging piece of writing, which looks at the ‘what if’ through a human perspective.

It’s also crucially important- and refreshing- to have new Welsh writing that doesn’t only concern itself with Welshness. And one which proves the ability of Welsh writing to write about so much more.

One interesting observation, however, is in the obvious (and probably frustratingly frequent) comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ that will come of this, and the rest of the season.

The interesting thing about writing to the cultural zeitgeist is there will always be people (and reviewers) who have totally missed the zeitgeist.

So forever, should this reviewer ever see it, Charlie Brookers Black Mirror will be ‘a bit like Matthew Bulgo’s American Nightmare’.

For more information on the season and to book for The Story by Tess Berry-Hart and Hela by Mari Izzard, visit www.otherroomtheatre.com

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