Paul T Davies reviews Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House starring Bill Pullman and David Harbour at the Ambassadors Theatre, London.
Ambassadors Theatre, London.
24 June 2022
The fractured family returning to the familial home when the patriarch is dying has been a fertile ground for drama for centuries, and Theresa Rebeck’s play joins a fine canon that includes the work of Miller, Tracey Letts, and, in it’s instant goading between the lead characters, the vicious claustrophobia of early Martin McDonagh. Michael, upon being released from the local mental institution, “the mad house”, is the care provider for his father, Daniel, a man whom they are all waiting to die, a man with, shall we say, some strong non politically correct beliefs. Hospice nurse Lillian is sent to care for Daniel, and cue the arrival of siblings Nedward and Pam, whose interest lies solely in their father’s real estate and their inheritance. Add a couple of hookers for an impromptu party at home, secrets spilling out form the past and we feel in familiar ground in the first half, and of course it’s a metaphor for America as it is now. But Rebeck’s dialogue and exquisite plotting, and a cast relishing and revelling in the roles they are playing, delivers a majestic second act, among the finest work currently on in the West End.
The central performances are mesmerising. David Harbour literally and metaphorically gives a towering performance, a wounded bear crying with rage, needing comfort, with clarity of his situation fuelling his grief and anger. His pairing with Bill Pullman as Daniel is the engine of the play, Pullman not excusing the unpleasant side of Daniel, but beautiful as he finally faces up to some of his past actions and makes an attempt at redemption. But it is the outstanding Ayika Henry as hospice nurse Lillian who the evening belongs to. A tower of strength from the moment she enters, and never losing the dignity of her character, she conveys so much in one look- she has this family summed up from day one. There is perhaps too much yelling, particularly when the “evil” Pam, (my word-I wanted to yell at her, well done Sinead Matthews), crashes into the house.
However, it’s a beautiful, tender, quiet scene between Michael and Lillian in act two that stays with you. Whilst references to “we all see the same stars and moon” threatens cliché, the writing and acting then soars as Lillian reveals her lost child, and the two make a genuine connection. It’s worth the ticket price alone. The threat of being returned to the asylum hangs over Michael, and that grows as the play goes on, with Stephen Wight excellent as Nedward, trying desperately to build bridges and fight for fairness -despite betraying his brother.
Played out on a claustrophobic set by Frankie Bradshaw, even when outdoors we are clear that is a literal fight for space, this is a show in which a pencil takes on such symbolism the audience gasp- no spoilers but it’s a tribute to the old rule that “less is more.” Fans of Stranger Things will not be disappointed by Mr. Harbour, and fans of high-quality writing and acting with leave remembering this production for a long time.