17 June 2022
MAD HOUSE (Ambassarods Theatre) Review

This is my second run-in with Theresa Rebeck’s writing under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction, the first one having been “Seared” in New York a few years back.  Given how much I loved that show (though, appreciably, because of Raul Esparza more so than anything else), I tried not to set the expectations too high here so not to be disappointed.

Rebeck’s writing was mostly clever and fairly balanced:  good dialogue, some well-placed jokes.  Although the characters don’t feel fully formed (i.e., we aren’t really told how/why they are the way they are), they aren’t caricatures either.  Rebeck has a couple of messages about relationships and mortality she wants to communicate, and a lot of the text streamlines the destination.  However, some of it feels just thrown in to make it appear modern (e.g., the whole transgender discussion), as it is largely irrelevant to the story.

The play is headlined by Bill Pullman (as Daniel, the family patriarch who has a terminal case of emphysema but is convinced that he isn’t really dying) and David Harbour (as his youngest son Michael, who missed his mother’s death whilst he was in a mental hospital and has now moved back into the family home to take care of his father).  Both of them are on fire.  Pullman, whose make-up makes him look as if he is about to keel over on stage mid-performance, is grumpy, despondent, and obnoxious in a terrifyingly believable way.  Harbour is pitch-perfect as someone being pushed from pillar to post in trying to cope with his father’s rudeness, his siblings’ greed, the loss of his mother, and his own fragile mental state.  I didn’t know it when I saw the show, but it seems Rebeck wrote “Michael” specifically with Harbour in mind, him having struggled with mental illness in the past.  Not having read the play, I don’t know how well this part is written, but it is certainly well-acted.

Interestingly, the main cast is not a duet but a trio:  Akiya Henry plays Lilian, the hospice nurse sent in to take care of Daniel.  She is both the glue that holds the two men together and a glimmer of comic relief.  Henry is a fantastic actress (I’d seen her in Macbeth prior to this), but I felt the part itself went off the rails a little in the second act given just how much Lilian got involved in the whole family drama.  Nonetheless, the three of them on stage in the first act really did make some theatre magic happen.

Michael’s siblings Ned (played by Stephen Wight) and Pam (played by Sinéad Matthews) toe a fine line between the usual sibling rivalry, absurdity, hatred, and good old greed, as they each want a piece of Daniel’s inheritance.  I rather liked Wight’s performance because he made Ned a real person, flawed though the character may be.  Matthews was less nuanced by comparison, but I think that’s because Pam was written more as a plot device than a rounded person.  Although both of them are meant to be not at all likeable (I thought, anyway), you do end up feeling sorry for Ned in the end, all to Wight’s credit.

The very end of the play felt abrupt, and not in a way where we’re meant to go away and think about it some, but more like Rebeck just got tired of writing and didn’t quite know how to resolve things.  There are plenty of serious and deep themes in the show, and so I wanted the ending to be a bit more meaningful.  I am hoping it will get tweaked a little as the show progresses.

Von Stuelpnagel does seem to get the best performance out of everyone on stage, and, although there are plenty of tragic bits throughout the play, he keeps things suitably light, making the 2-1/4 hours fly by.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.

Bonus: By sheer accident I ended up having a chat with Rebeck, Wight, and Matthews after the show (where I did promise not to post my review until after the official press night, thus the delay).  It was fascinating to hear them discuss the play and suggest slight tweaks.  I will tell you what I told them:  this isn’t “the Pullman and Harbour show”, but a genuinely fantastic ensemble piece.

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