Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 4 September 2022
If conflict be the essence of great drama, then American writer Theresa Rebeck is serving up something akin to a modern masterpiece with this world premiere. While not a masterpiece perhaps – there is a jarring gear change near the end of act one, the second half veers towards sentimentality, and some of the structure and plotting is a little predictable, while the end feels too abrupt – Mad House is still a tremendously engrossing and satisfying tragicomedy, given a flawless, blazingly well acted production by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
Although primarily known for US TV and film roles, David Harbour and Bill Pullman field an impressive array of theatre credits between them: Harbour was previously in the West End in 2006 in the Kathleen Turner Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (and Rebeck’s writing at its most caustically brilliant here sometimes recalls the bile and bite of Albee) and Pullman starred opposite Sally Field in the Old Vic’s 2019 All My Sons. They bring formidable technique, fascinating physicality and a thrilling command of the stage to a father and son relationship etched in loathing, guilt and mutual recrimination.
If Joe Keller as played by Pullman in the aforementioned Miller revival was a flawed patriarch, Mad House’s Daniel, bed bound, permanently attached to an oxygen machine and offensively determined to make his final days as hellish for everybody else as they are for him, is broken beyond repair. He knows it – his frequent screams of “I’m not dying!” are more of a hectoring threat than anything else – and he isn’t so much raging against the dying of the light as screaming blue murder at, and spitting in the face of, it. Pullman is barely recognisable, decrepit but possessed of a malevolent energy, relishing the sheer nastiness of the character but also delivering lethal comic zingers with grim precision: it’s a hell of a performance.
At one point, he literally spits in the face of Harbour’s hulking, emotionally challenged elder son Michael, recently released from long term psychiatric care and now looking after his poisonous dad partly because he has no place else to be, as Daniel frequently delights in reminding him. It’s a powerful moment, one of several in a script that, while seldom actually surprising, so ingeniously dripfeeds information that it feels fresh even when the situations depicted aren’t particularly original. Rebeck is a skilled storyteller but her handle on vividly drawn characters and incendiary dialogue is even more impressive, as is her compassionate understanding of the mentally ill, and a tacit acceptance of the awfulness of some people’s old age.
End of life care, bereavement, suicide and mental health are potent subjects and Mad House pulls no punches in dealing with them, yet the script is shot through with irresistible gallows humour and punctuated with moments of unexpected but authentic sweetness. Most of these moments involve Akiya Henry’s luminous but tough hospice nurse Lillian, brought in to look after Daniel but suddenly thrust into the role of lynchpin for this fractured family. Henry sensitively evokes a woman whose almost angelic kindness and strength has been hard won, and her second act recollection of the loss of her child carries a devastating emotional punch.
Equally fine is Stephen Wight as the Manhattan-dwelling, hedge fund manager son who plays the city slicker upon arrival back at the Massachussetts homestead but is soon reduced to impotent mumbling after a couple of hours of toxic family crossfire. Sinéad Matthews has an innate likability which creates an interesting tension against Rebeck’s writing for ruthless, also largely absent, sister Pam, nursing a longstanding resentment at their late mother’s care for the troubled Michael to the detriment of her other kids. In a brave, full throttle performance, Matthews invests her with an intriguing brittleness which ensures that a moment of almost unbelievable psychological cruelty towards her distressed brother, makes absolute sense.
Ultimately though, the play belongs to David Harbour’s sardonic, physically imposing, psychologically fragile Michael. Harbour delivers exquisitely detailed work: tender but brutal, witty and flamboyant but unflinchingly truthful. He entirely convinces as a flawed, kind individual capable of a fury that can only be managed by absenting himself from a situation and raging at the sky, but also an unrefined sensitivity: note the way he repeatedly tries, yet fails, to physically reach out to Henry’s Lillian as she pours her beautiful heart out to him. There’s psychological authenticity too in the way Harbour’s Michael follows extravagant pronouncements of anger with a subtle physical jerk-back of the neck, as though in a state of constant self-censorship. This is a magnificent sucker-punch of a performance, and one that ought to feature on every Best Actor award nomination list for this year.
Frankie Bradshaw’s gorgeous set of a grandiose period family home fallen into disrepair is an appropriate metaphor for the relationships of the principal characters. There’s even an unnecessary but entirely pleasing revolve, further indicative of the Rolls Royce swagger of von Stuelpnagel’s assured, world class staging.
This may prove too dark for those after a night of West End escapism, but it is an undeniably fine piece of theatre. Rich and complex, yet accessible, it’s a thumping good night out that’ll give you plenty to talk about afterwards. Rebeck’s works usually premiere on Broadway so this is a real gift for London….and you’d be mad to miss acting of this calibre.