This dark family play examines with great intensity family structures, grief, greed and mental health to brilliant effect.
Watching this compelling, if at times difficult to watch, play by Theresa Rebeck unfolding it has a real feel of a modern classic family play that somewhat brutally dissects what it means to be part of a family and the roles we each play in it.
Initially the play opens with dying father Daniel taunting his son Michael about a number of things but focusing mainly on his mental health – considering him the ‘outsider’ of the family despite him trying to help care for his father. Early on, while Michael tries to rise above the somewhat brutal things that are thrown his way, he is soon pushed to his limits – particularly with the arrival of his somewhat selfish siblings Nedward and Pam who are seemingly only visiting to see who will get what after their father has passed away. But also thrown into this family turmoil is nurse Lillian who gets caught up against her will and who tries to keep the family’s attention on their father’s health at hand – but struggles to do so when so much unresolved pain between the siblings bursts free.
Sharply directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, Mad House really does have a feel of other American classic family plays such as Long Day’s Journey into Night and All My Sons for example with the way in which it is able to shift mood and tone in a split second – particularly seen in the second act as each sibling confronts each other about the past, revealing some heartbreaking shocks particularly for Michael. The way in which Von Stuelpnagel has brought this toxic family life to the stage is incredibly focused as the cracks between the family get bigger – particularly between Michael and Pam.
Every line in the script blisters with intent and purpose, making the audience wince from the very start and creating an interesting dynamic between father (who is denial about dying) and son who refuses to leave the home in which he grew up in as it was the place that he has most memories of his mum despite being cruelly treated by his father. While we perhaps never get a deep understanding of why and how Daniel has become the tyrannical figure that he has, you get a sense that for the whole family the unexpressed grief for the wife and mother lies somewhat at the heart of it – particularly when she apparently lavished much attention onto Michael when she was alive causing resentment for his brother and sister. Everybody is pushed to their absolute limit.
While it is an absolutely absorbing watch for the audience, it must be absolutely emotionally draining for the cast to have to perform this intense play which never lets up from beginning to end. David Harbour as Michael in particular goes through such an emotional rollercoaster and delivers such a warm, tender and raw performance that highlights Michael’s exhaustion at having to deal with his father alone. The dry way in which he delivers the darker comical moments of the script makes the audience sit up and pay attention. But he also has a wonderful chemistry with Bill Pullman’s viciously snide Daniel – their sparring early on really compelling to watch. Despite being confined to a chair or bed for the most part, Bill Pullman is equally powerful to watch, using his eyes and words to capture the tyranny of the character perfectly. They are surrounded by excellent support including Akiya Henry, who gives a strong performance as Lillian who is the only one who understands Michael’s pain and offers him comfort when he needs it the most, while Sinead Matthews is powerfully nasty as Pam who will stop at nothing to get things her own way.
This is certainly not an easy watch, but my goodness it does feel like a modern classic in its own right. Thoroughly engaging from start to finish, it leaves you with plenty to think about.
By Emma Clarendon