Theresa Rebeck is a prolific American playwright having written Bernhardt/Hamlet, Dead Accounts and Seminar, who also turns her hand to writing for television and has a string of novels to her name such as Three Girls and Their Brother and I’m Glad About You.
Her latest play Mad House examines an American family who are attempting to live with a past, which is also shaping their future. Michael (David Harbour) is living with, and caring for his dying father Daniel (Bill Pullman), who is not the easiest of patients to put it mildly, whom directs insults towards his son on a daily basis. Michael has been living with his father for eleven months and is nearing the end of his tether, when they are allocated a hospice nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry). Daniel has decided that he wishes to spend his last days living at home and will not entertain being taken into hospital. Michael has his own issues. After spending time in a mental asylum, he finds it exceedingly difficult to live with his father’s constant stream of criticism and feels responsible for his mother’s death. Michael has two siblings, Pam (Sinead Matthews) and Ned (Stephen Wight) or Nedward as Michael likes to call him. It soon becomes clear that there is a lifetime of resentment between the siblings, which adds to the family’s tensions.
The driving force behind the family’s woe is Daniel who takes pleasure in torturing his children and Bill Pullman does an excellent job of twisting the knife in his family’s wide-open wounds. The loss of their mother has clearly hit the siblings hard and Pam (Matthews) who functioned as her mother’s protector during her life; searches for someone to blame for her mother’s death. Ned (Wight) comes across as uncaring, but his vulnerability is soon exposed as the play unfolds.
Lillian (Henry) is the compassionate figure, offering her medical assistance, but also gets drawn into the family’s problems. Henry plays Lillian as the balancer within the play, the outside influence trying to help to stead the ship, which is no easy task, as the family’s wounds run deep.
Within the writing is a dark comedic element. Daniel’s cruelty is brutal, but with a twist of comedy the atmosphere of the play is lifted, and this helps to make the play extremely watchable. Harbour plays Michael as a man who has no friends, his mental illness seems to have made him an outcast, and with the persecution from his own family, he feels that he has no place to turn. Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, this play is multi-layered, and at times the family members inflicting the mental cruelty, show glimpses of their own vulnerability, and a need to protect themselves from hurt.
Set designer Frankie Bradshaw can be congratulated on creating a vision of a home in need of loving care, just like the family living inside the house. It works well as the staging for this all-American play, for its London premiere.
The writing, direction and performances all come together to create a sometimes heart wrenching, yet darkly funny play, which shows off the writer’s skill in walking the tightrope between comedy and pathos.
The play runs until the 4th September 2022 and further information and ticket booking can be found at – https://www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk/shows/mad-house
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 24th June 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★