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Review: MAD HOUSE, Ambassadors Theatre

The world premiere stars David Harbour and Bill Pullman.

Mad House

SMad Houseometimes a new play comes along that has all the right ingredients for a delectable theatrical recipe.

Mad House reunites esteemed American playwright Theresa Rebeck and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. The two most recently collaborated on the well-received Broadway play Bernhardt/Hamlet. Now they bring a dose of familial dark comedy to the London stage for its world premiere.

David Harbour is the obvious draw, no doubt ushering an abundant number of Stranger Things fans into the Ambassadors Theatre - which can only be a positive! The actor is joined by stage and screen veteran Bill Pullman, who last performed in the UK at the Old Vic in All My Sons alongside Sally Field. The leads are offered sturdy support by the always alluring Sinead Matthews as well as Stephen Wight and Akiya Henry. Add music composition by Isobel Waller-Bridge and set design by Frankie Bradshaw to the mix and audiences are gifted a pacey, provocative and pithy production that pleasingly lives up to its hype.

We find ourselves in a suburban home in Pennsylvania. Bradshaw's set, consisting of the kitchen area of the house before rotating to the back porch for Act Two, is remarkably detailed - its realism drawing us in. Coupled with the relatively intimate space of the Ambassadors Theatre and we are quickly immersed in the action and lives of what can only be described as a highly dysfunctional family.

Daniel (Pullman) is house-bound and receiving hospice care as a result of emphysema. Long-suffering son Michael (Harbour) is his disinclined live-in carer. The two often butt heads, with Michael frequently being reminded of the time he spent in a mental institution in his younger years. It's a bone of contention, not helped by Daniel's callous insistence that his son is responsible for his mother's untimely death. She, in fact, died of cancer. While deep down Michael wants his father to be comfortable, all Daniel can think about is beer and hookers. As his impending death encroaches ever closer, Daniel's other son Nedward (Wight) arrives. It soon becomes apparent that Nedward is simply after one thing: his father's money. He is eventually joined by his equally greedy yet far more poisonous sister Pam (Matthews).

While Nedward and Michael struggle to conceal their contempt for one another, Pam manipulates Michael's mental health in an attempt to gain full control of her father's assets, despite Michael being the Executor of the will. As family tensions skyrocket, hospice Nurse Lillian (Henry) acts as an outside eye, seeing the siblings for who they really are. She is a tonic to the increasingly consuming toxicity taking hold of the house, with Henry serving a well-rounded and absorbing performance.

Pullman is perfectly cast as the ailing but restless father - we understand his frustration, laugh at his boyish humour and feel for him when he realises the level of greed inhabited by the two children who haven't been around to look after him. Harbour also captivates, enjoying effortless chemistry with Henry and radiating the anger, hurt and exasperation at being persecuted and undermined for his previous battles with mental health. It's a multi-faceted, nuanced and heart-wrenching portrayal.

Matthews manages to steer clear of entering the realms of stereotype. Shallow, superficial and heartless, she relentlessly verbally assassinates her brother. While we are often appalled by her behaviour, the actor swoops in with a scene-stealing turn. Wight also captures the self-absorbed, entitled demeanour of the more successful son with aplomb.

The somewhat abrupt ending leaves audiences yearning for more, yet as we exit the theatre, we are awash with questions. We ponder who the most venomous character was, consider the concept of inheritance and all its potentially toxic ramifications, reflect on family relations and ruminate about the ever-pertinent subject of mental health.

This is also a portrait of life as a carer, with the play presenting an honest depiction of prejudice, stigma and even racial tensions and gender roles. Yes, there is a great deal packed into the play, yet Rebeck, the cast and creatives ensure it is all excavated and executed in the most dramatically engaging of ways.

Tense, occasionally unsettling and uncomfortable but brimming with laugh out loud character-driven humour and presented with fine performances all round, Mad House demands you drop by for what will be a memorable visit to the theatre.

Mad House is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 September

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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