Review: Mad House, at Ambassadors Theatre

Theresa Rebeck’s play is unremitting in its depiction of a dysfunctional family set to explode

Thursday, 30th June — By Lucy Popescu

Bill Pullman in Mad House Photo by Marc Brenner

Bill Pullman in Mad House. Photo: Marc Brenner

AMERICAN playwright Theresa Rebeck’s latest work follows the well-worn theme of a dysfunctional family gathering at the home of an ailing patriarch. (Think back to Hampstead Theatre’s The Fever Syndrome earlier in the year).

Rebeck wrote Mad House for actor David Harbour. Her writing is bold and unremitting in its depiction of a family set to explode. When they do, fireworks erupt.

Bill Pullman plays Daniel, the terminally ill father who clings on to life with grim determination. He’s a vicious, self-centred bully, obsessed with his creature comforts, who cares little for anyone else, least of all his family.

Harbour is his troubled son Michael, who tries to look after him while putting up with his bile. Daniel takes a sadistic pleasure in baiting Michael, taunting him with his shortcomings and always looking for a reaction.

When Michael’s siblings, Nedward (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinead Matthews) descend like vultures to pick over the likely inheritance, the family’s rifts, dating back years, are revealed in all their gory detail. The emotional damage this has caused Michael swiftly becomes clear.

We learn Michael has spent time in a mental hospital and is still prone to furious outbursts, when frustrated. He was his late mother’s favourite child, but his loathsome father pushes him to his limits.

Relief comes in the form of kindly hospice nurse, Lillian (Akiya Henry) who watches the family dynamics play out with a cool appraising eye.

The psychology is unsubtle and not everything feels credible in Rebeck’s script – in particular Michael’s hiring of two hookers to enliven (or kill) his dad. The assisted suicide theme comes out of nowhere and could have been further developed. But Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s assured direction brings out the play’s dark humour and the stellar cast’s pitch-perfect performances ensure this family drama is immensely watchable.

Until September 4
theambassadorstheatre.co.uk

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