Words: Simon Button; Image: David Harbour (Michael) in Mad House, photography by Marc Brenner
Last time I ventured to the Ambassadors Theatre it was in search of Cock. I wasn’t disappointed. This time I went in search of two of the finest actors on the planet and again I wasn’t disappointed.
David Harbour and Bill Pullman are so good in Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House you wonder if anyone else should even bother showing up at next awards season. Harbour is best known for Stranger Things on TV and Pullman’s numerous film credits include Sleepless in Seattle and Independence Day but they’re both seasoned stage performers and seeing them flex their awesome acting muscles in the flesh is to witness true greatness.
All those three-star reviewers must have mistakenly dropped a star on the way out, or perhaps they resent the American invasion of the British stage. (They were similarly unkind to Amy Adams recently.) And yes, Rebeck’s play meanders a bit in the second act but it’s compelling stuff as it mines the depths of human awfulness.
You have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry at Pullman’s dying patriarch Daniel as he makes passes at his hospice care nurse, spouts casual transphobia, and hurls soup (“It’s an evil colour”) and abuse at his son Michael, who spent a year in an asylum because of mental health struggles.
Bill Pullman (Daniel) in Mad House (Image: Marc Brenner)
Dying from emphysema, Daniel is, as Harbour’s Michael says, pure malevolence and Pullman really goes for it, although he’s a saint compared to his daughter Pam (Sinéad Matthews, really going for it too) - an annoying busybody who wants to see Michael sectioned again.
Stuck in the middle are their brother Nedward (Stephen Wight, very funny), who comes in with a plan to sell the family home but is really just a harmless douche, and nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry, taking no nonsense), who doesn’t pander to Daniel’s outbursts and is the only one who sees Michael for the kind-hearted man he really is underneath all his anger and frustration.
Harbour is sensational in the role. Much of the audience when I saw the show was made up of Stranger Things geeks but he makes you forget all about Jim Hopper as he tears into a man who literally bangs his head against the wall in rage. Harbour has a few big speeches and some droll quips, yet he conveys just as much with a wry smile or knowing frown.
Should the transphobic stuff be included? Yes, because it’s a harsh reality and it’s the job of artists to shine a light on the world, not snowflake out on uncomfortable subject matter.
And should we spend two hours with characters who are frequently so odious you wish you had soup to hurl at them yourselves? Absolutely, because they show how the cuckoo in this tangled family nest is actually the sanest of them all.
Mad House is at the Ambassadors Theatre until September 4th. For tickets click here.