Mad House review: David Harbour is tremendous fun in this old-fashioned comedy
The new comedy from American playwright Theresa Rebeck is calculatedly icky. In Mad House, an old man marinates in his own malevolence as his equally unpleasant adult children squabble over his money. It’s an entertaining but uninspired showcase for two megawatt US talents: Bill Pullman, who revels in the role of dying patriarch Daniel, and Stranger Things star David Harbour, who plays his put-upon son Michael with the vigour of a wounded bear.
They’re tremendous fun to watch. Pullman grumbles, lashes out, and knocks over his bowl of freshly cooked soup with the gleeful ingratitude of a toddler. And Harbour reverts to infancy too, torn between parenting his aged dad and sinking into childish frustration when his efforts fail. The arrival of capable nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry) briefly shakes some sense into both of them. But then Michael’s money-grubbing sister Pam (Sinead Matthews) and spineless brother Nedward (Stephen Wight) show up with a plan to get their mitts on the family home and disinherit their sibling.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps things pacy, and secures fine, flamboyant performances from this A-grade cast. But still, this is all deeply old-fashioned stuff which, bar an uncomfortable and unnecessary argument about trans people, could have easily been written any time in the last five decades. Frankie Bradshaw serves up a classic dilapidated suburban house set design which wobbles when someone slams a door. There’s an equally creaky plot device that revolves around a letter from Michael’s dead mother. And it feels like the show’s creators were so keen to knock things off at the two-hour mark that the play just ends, without resolving the assisted suicide-related moral dilemma it sets up.
It’s also unclear what purpose, beyond entertainment, all this nastiness is in service of. We’re told that Michael is in recovery from a breakdown where he believed he was Jesus – Rebeck sought inspiration from Harbour’s own mental health issues when she wrote the role for him. But there’s a real lack of insight into psychosis, stigma and recovery here. And there’s also a lack of psychological nuance to its unrelentingly bleak depiction of familial cruelties: real-life abusive families often mingle their insults with just enough kindness to keep their ties intact.
Hidden somewhere in the shaky foundations of Mad House is the message that the supposedly mentally ill Michael is the sanest one here. He’s the only one who’s not driven by some kind of ruthless agenda, and the only one who’s trying to do the “right thing”. Having a breakdown is, perhaps, the only rational response to being a part of this f***ed up family. Harbour delivers a memorable performance as this tormented everyman, but this play isn’t solidly built enough for it to hit home.
‘Mad House’ runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 September