Mad House: Crazy or Angry or Both
“He’s not in pain because he’s so energetically committed to inflicting it. “
The big draw, which will only appeal if you have watched and loved Stranger Things on Netflix, is David Harbour who plays Michael, who was the only one available to care for his dementia ridden father, Daniel (another big draw in the shape of Bill Pullman, who was last in London for Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Old Vic). In all fairness it may be that Michael had nowhere else to go on his discharge from the psychiatric facility but his two siblings, his dull hedge fund employed brother, Nedward (Stephen Wight) and his spiteful sister Pam (Sinéad Matthews) only turn up when the inheritance of the eight figure valued real estate seems in prospect.
Be warned that this black comedy would not be so enjoyable for anyone going through the obligations of dementia care for a relative, a situation where I suspect it is very hard to see the funny side of cruelty. Michael is the victim here as his stay in the institution is continually brought up as his being “in the loony bin” by his father Daniel. Daniel doesn’t just have dementia but also terminal cancer and emphysema. A palliative nurse has been assigned to him from a local hospice. She is Lillian (played by a stellar Akiya Henry) a nurse from St Vincent and the Grenadines, who is probably the most attractive character in the play. We all hold our breath as Daniel nears close to uttering some racial epithet towards this caring and even-tempered nurse.
In the opening scene Daniel throws off the table the homemade soup Michael has made for him. Daniel accuses Michael of trying to poison him and says, “You’re the crazy one!” I’m getting Wilfred Bramble as Old Man Steptoe, nasty, cantankerous behaviour parallels from Daniel towards his son. Daniel’s demands are cigarettes, hookers, Irish whiskey and morphine.
This is comedy that hurts Michael, we laugh but it’s agony for him. Michael has to explain that what he went to was a prayer meeting not an exorcism as Daniel continually jabs him about his breakdown.
At the end of the first act, Michael comes back with a couple of girls Devon (Hanako Footman) and Skylar (Charlie Oscar) and whiskey to give Daniel a happy ending but sister Pam’s arrival puts an end to the party and Michael’s musings about summers in the meadow to the sounds of “Danny Boy” when he finds comfort talking to Lillian.
Sinéad Matthews as Pam is scary and interfering as she attempts to blame Lillian for the gathering and wants to call the police. There is a back story about Michael and his mother who died while he was in the hospital and we see him tending to flowers in the garden.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderfully detailed, a spacious house with no one to give it the care it needs. Act Two sees it rotate to show the porch and Michael’s cared for pot plants.
Michael is the most sympathetic member of this family and David Harbour’s performance has all these emotions rumbling below the surface as we both laugh and sympathise with him. Bill Pullman’s Daniel has moments of charm as well as utterances which make us wince.
There is a fascinating interview in the programme between the director and Theresa Rebeck asking where this dark, vicious humour comes from as she has such a sensitive, kind personality. She replies that, “There’s no question she has some mean people living in her head. It’s not a bad thing to give them something to do, to take them out for a stroll in a relatively safe way, like let them bash each other in a play because if I don’t, they will turn on me, and that’s honestly no fun.”
The big question for me is why don’t we see more of her plays in London? It may be because she writes with a specific actor in mind who doesn’t want to come to London but surely there are others out there who do want to play these great roles and, I for one, want to see them.
I enjoyed Mad House so much that I am awarding it the rarity of a Theatrevibe Five star rating from the theatre site that doesn’t do stars. Go to laugh at these tremendous performances and worry not if the play has no other message than, at times, life hurts so much, laughter is the only way to cope.
Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Mauritz von Stuelpnagel
Director: Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Set Designer: Frankie Bradshaw
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Costume Designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer: Prema Mehta
Sound Designer: Beth Duke
Movement: Robert Westley
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 4th September 2022
London WC2H 9ND
Phone: 03330 096 690
Tube Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
at the Ambassadors Theatre
on 23rd June 2022