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Review: Mad House (Ambassadors Theatre)

How do you follow one of the most talked about plays of the year? That's the challenge Mad House has as it fills the huge hole left by Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre. Like that previous show, it is also led by two huge stars of screen, but can Mad House repeat the success of its predecessor?

The world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's latest play is set in Pennsylvania where Michael has returned to his family home to look after his dying father, following a spell in hospital to look after his own mental health. Throughout the course of the play, we witness the relationship between the members of this dysfunctional family as questions of inheritance and their own ethics play out.

Mad House is led by Stranger Things star David Harbour, returning to the London stage as Michael. A complex character, David has to channel extreme emotions in his character as he gets to grips with the impending death of his father, his own trauma regarding his mothers death and his own mental health. Not the easiest of themes to deal with, David showcases his incredible acting skills in a true performance masterclass. Whether it's displaying impeccable comic timing, showcasing volatility as his rage explodes or dealing with ethical issues that form the latter part of the show, he delivers a performance so extraordinary, he is bound to be on the receiving end of award nominations for it.

Playing the role of Michaels father, Daniel, is an absolute legend - Veteran of stage and screen Bill Pullman. Back on the London stage after wowing audiences in All My Sons at the Old Vic, Bill clearly relishes the opportunity to play the questionable character. Close to death, the way he speaks about certain groups of people such as the trans community made my skin crawl. Sadly, we've probably all experienced people like Daniel in our time and it's a testament to Bills acting prowess just how convincingly he played this character. There were redeeming factors to his character, with plenty of comic moments and, thankfully, much more likeable aspects to his personality. While his stage time was far more limited in act 2, he well and truly made his presence felt for the time he did spend on there.

Holding your own against two powerhouse performers like David Harbour and Bill Pullman may seem a tall order but the remaining cast members more than rise to the challenge. Akiya Henry is an absolute standout as Daniels hospice nurse, Lillian. Whether it's delivering a killer line or providing emotional support, Akiya is truly mesmerising in the role, with the ability to make the audience erupt with a simple look. Stephen Wight is fantastic as Michaels brother Nedward, while Sinéad Matthews gives such a convincing performance as the truly hideous sister Pam, I felt genuine anger at her (admittedly brilliant) portrayal. The cast are completed by Charlie Oscar and Hanako Footman in fleeting but memorable appearances.

The writing by Theresa Rebeck is insanely good. Quite dark in places with regular lines that will make you wince, it is truly exceptionally good. Treading the fine line between naturalistic dialogue and things we would never dream of saying, the context of the play does raise some ethical questions, bringing up conversations that will give you pause for thought and most likely create a healthy debate among us. What can surely be agreed on is the high quality of the writing. While written prior to extremely recent events, the line "The American legal system is a mess" was of particularly poignancy.

With glorious direction from Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the action unfolds fantastically with a brilliant set design from Frankie Bradshaw full of detail from the house in question, and wonderfully spinning around to change the setting completely from one act to the other. Pretty much every aspect of this production is top notch with beautiful lighting from Prema Mehta and sound from Beth Duke, though there were a couple of questionable slips in accents throughout.

Mad House is a powerful piece of theatre. Wickedly funny and full of genius dialogue, it is also thought-provoking and potentially quite triggering. While the themes it deals with including death and mental health aren't easy subjects, the way they are explored with brutal realism is admirable, as hard to watch as they may be. Featuring one of the stage performances of the year in David Harbour, very nearly matched by his fellow cast members, Mad House is a truly wonderful piece of theatre that plays on your mind long after you leave the theatre. One of the best plays in the West End this year, you'd be mad to miss it!


Mad House plays at Ambassadors Theatre until September 4th. Tickets available here.

Photos by Marc Brenner



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