Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the maddest, baddest of them all? This is the five-million dollar question you’ll be asking yourself when you leave the Ambassador’s Theatre after an evening with Mad House, a play by American playwright Theresa Rebeck which packs a very mighty punch and will leave you a little bruised and emotionally kaput.
But it’s not all tears and tantrums in this play. Mad House is also very, very funny – and some of it’s non-PC too, a refreshing change from the inoffensive tone of so many West End productions these days. This one serves up the inner workings of the all-American family, big fat warts and all.
Mad House is a two-hander, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and with acting heavyweights David Harbour (Stranger Things) and Bill Pullman (Independence Day, The Sinner) in the driving seats. It doesn’t surprise me that Rebeck had both actors in mind from the get-go: they wear the roles like a well-fitted suit.
Harbour is Michael, a middle-aged man who has been caring for his cantankerous father Daniel (Pullman) who is in advanced stages of emphysema and is dying. Daniel is fed up with being treated like an animal in a cage and has many tantrums, most of them with long-suffering Michael. He’s determined he’s not going anywhere and begs for hookers, Irish whisky and some morphine too. Instead, he gets hospice carer, Lillian from the Grenadines (played by an outstanding Akiya Henry). She’s a refreshing tonic amidst all the chaos and the madness, but she’s also chasing her own demons.
Enter Daniel’s sibling, Pam (Sinéad Matthews) who gets the prize for the person I most wanted to hit over the head with a blunt object. You will really, really hope she gets her comeuppance. Then there’s younger brother Nedward (Stephen Wright) a successful businessman who lives in New York and hasn’t had the time or the inclination to look after his father. The pair are back in the family lair in order to get their money-grabbing hands on the inheritance, the size of which remains in doubt throughout.
Daniel, Pam and Nedward spend most of the two hours ripping Michael apart. We learn that he has had a stint in a mental institution and that his mother died whilst he was in absentia. Père and siblings blame Michael for her death, and they are convinced he’s still unstable. Interestingly, Harbour is no stranger to mental health institutions, having had his own stint in them during his mid-twenties.
Mad House will have you squirming uncomfortably in your seats, holding your hands to your ears, then crying and laughing out loud. It’s all so well-crafted – from the exquisite writing to the heart-wrenching acting, all helped along by Frankie Bradshaw’s revolving sets and music composition by Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister to Phoebe in case you’re wondering).
The evening opened with rapturous applause for the two actors (the excitement of seeing them both on opening night was palpable). Predictably, it ended with a standing ovation but with a little twist from Harbour who asked the audience: “who comes to a first preview?” I do, of course, so I can get these reviews out for you good people – and boy I am grateful I did. It’s hard to imagine how the play will improve with age. This Mad House is made of pure gold.
Mad House | Ambassador’s Theatre | On until 4 September | Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one interval | Book tickets.
Cover image: Charlie Gray