I was blown away by the production of Mad House at the Ambassadors Theatre; the gripping, smart and incredibly heartfelt new play by Theresa Rebeck. Starring Hollywood legend Bill Pullman, star of Stranger Things David Harbour, and Olivier Award-nominated Akiya Henry.
It’s an incredible experience to watch actors you admire at the top of their game, on stage at such an intimate venue. I was so excited to see Bill Pullman, who we remember as the wonderful dad in Casper, one of my childhood favourite films. And of course, like many Stranger Things fans, I was thrilled to see David Harbour on stage.
Bill Pullman plays Daniel; an emotionally abusive father who is nearing the end of his life. He is wildly offensive, rude and outrageous in his demands for Irish whiskey and cigarettes. Pullman is magnetic to watch, having the audience in stitches with his lively eyes and cheeky glances.
David Harbour plays is his long-suffering son Michael, who has been left by his brother and sister to look after their father. As the only sibling willing to put in the hard work to care for his dad, Michael bears the brunt of Daniel’s hysterical rants and wild demands. The dialogue between them is hysterically funny and brutally dark, with Michael trying to control his temper, and Daniel staggering around the house, attached to an oxygen machine. He accuses Michael of abuse for not letting a dying man have a cigarette.
Enter Lillian, played by the sensational Akiya Henry. Lillian is a nurse from the hospice, who has come to help the family and make Daniel’s last days as comfortable as possible. Her presence is warmly welcomed by the exhausted Michael, who is in much need of respite, and the two form a bond and friendship.
It’s quickly revealed that Michael spent time in hospital for mental illness, and his family insult him for being ‘mad’ and a ‘looney’ – the play on words being that the ‘mad house’ is really the family home.
When his brother Nedward (Stephen Wight) and sister Pam (Sinéad Matthews) arrive at the house, they appear callous and money-grabbing compared to Michael. Daniel accuses his children of flying in over his dying body like vultures. The dynamics between the siblings is brilliant. As Nedward accurately points out, when a parent dies it brings a lot of unresolved issues to the surface, including the grief over their mother, who died the previous year.
The play deals with hugely dark themes of family death, suicide, domestic violence and mental health. However, it is also an incredibly warm play, with compelling characters and truly sensational acting from a knockout cast. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with heart-warming, delightful moments. It’s a tender play about loss, grief, regret and the ways we cope when we are forced to deal with each other in times of family crisis.
It’s sure to be a hit, so don’t miss it.