The latest big-name show to open at London’s Ambassadors Theatre, Mad House, is a new play written by Theresa Rebeck. It features David Harbour – best known for the role of Hopper in hit TV series Stranger Things – starring opposite veteran film and theatre performer Bill Pullman. It’s a dark comedy, exploring themes of death and mental health, and spends most of its time presenting the audience with a dysfunctional family at war with one another.
Bill Pullman plays the role of cantankerous patriarch Daniel, who is suffering from advanced emphysema – he spends much of the show confined to his chair or his bed, but he’s not going down without a fight. David Harbour plays his son Michael, who has returned home to look after his dying father. We’re also introduced to Michael’s two siblings, Ned (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinead Mathews), who pop up with all the warmth of a pair of vultures, circling, waiting for their share of inheritance. We also meet the much kinder – but unafraid to stand up for herself – hospice nurse Lilian (Akiya Henry).
It gets a lot of stuff right. We’re treated to a pair of exceptionally strong performances from our two big stars. The supporting cast get less airtime to fully realise their characters, but there are still plenty of enjoyable moments – Ned is amusingly annoying, Pam is believably toxic. Much of the text is based on David Harbour’s own experiences of living with bipolar disorder; his character’s battles with his mental health resonate all the more powerfully as a result.
We did have a few reservations about the show, however. We’re usually fans of plays that leave us wanting more, but Mad House’s conclusion could – if we’re being kind – at best be described as rather abrupt. To be honest it was a bit disappointing – the final scene sets up a difficult moral dilemma and we were keen to see how that might play out. Leaving that scenario unresolved felt like a bit of a misstep.
The actual text itself of Mad House has a few shortcomings – not all the jokes land, some of its narrative devices feel forced and a few of the characters are underdeveloped. But within the show are regular flashes of brilliance, and some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny lines – coupled with some fine acting performances, the result is a perfectly entertaining night at the theatre.
GAY TIMES gives Mad House – 4/5
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