Mad House at the Ambassadors Theatre review: Both stars are brilliant

Bill Pullman (left) and David Harbour in Mad House at the Ambassadors Theatre (Marc Brenner)
Bill Pullman (left) and David Harbour in Mad House at the Ambassadors Theatre (Marc Brenner)

Floral, yellowing wallpaper; mismatched, rickety chairs; an array of antiquated knick-knacks; a grimy fridge offering beers aplenty but little by way of nourishment. This Pennsylvania home is in decay, and so is its patriarch.

Theatre veteran Bill Pullman plays the cantankerous, emphysema-riddled Daniel, who’s well on his way to death, but not going down without a fight. David Harbour (well-loved for his portrayal of Hopper in Netflix series Stranger Things) is his mentally ill son Michael, returned home to – begrudgingly – take care of his ailing father, who showers his child with vitriol as thanks. Help comes when they’re sent the patient but fierce hospice nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry), who finds herself involuntarily entangled in their web of family toxicity. Siblings Ned (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinéad Matthews) arrive soon after, motivated less by familial love and more by a thirst to uncover how much money might be coming their way after dad croaks.

Both stars are brilliant. Pullman as Daniel is sallow and sunken, frequently wiping gunk from the corners of his mouth, every word an effort. Don’t be fooled by this weakness though, there’s brute force behind his verbal abuse. With his body mostly confined to a chair or bed, so much is communicated through his eyes, which dart mischievously as he spews insults.

Harbour gives a tender and hilarious performance as the long-suffering family pariah Michael, who openly wishes for his father to die sooner rather than later. Both actors have exquisite comic timing, carefully nurtured by director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel to illuminate the deliciously dark comedy of Theresa Rebeck’s script. Stuelpnagel and Rebeck are regular collaborators, and the creative chemistry is palpable. When an audible gasp ripples across the audience at the mere snap of a pencil, it’s clear that their production has us right in the palm of its hand.

The supporting cast is excellent, too. Wight is suitably slimy as banker-wanker, loafers-and-no-socks-wearing Ned, and Matthews great – but awful – as the callous Pam who viciously weaponises Michael’s mental health against him, repeatedly mocking his stint in “the looney bin”. Henry is exceptional as Lillian, depicting a wealth of pain held just below the surface with gorgeous nuance and wit.

Rebeck’s play boldly cracks open the suffocating messiness of death, family, and mental health. This particular dysfunctional family treats mental illness as monstrous, but they’re reflective of a wider societal problem. When considering that conversations between the playwright and Harbour himself - about his own experience of being diagnosed and institutionalised with bipolar disorder at age 26 - helped shape the script, the play gains new meaning, and the power driving his performance feels even more potent.

Mad House runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until September 4. For tickets visit ES Tickets