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Mad House

Mad House

★★★★★

Ambassadors Theatre

Mad House

Ambassadors Theatre

Reviewed – 26th June 2022

★★★★★

 

“Pullman is cast to perfection as the irascible Daniel”

 

It would be easy to dismiss Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House as just another darkly humourous American family drama that never seems to go out of fashion, despite its increasingly creaky foundations. (Cue decaying old house where the family patriarch still holds control, even at point of death.) I’ll admit I went expecting warmed over Arthur Miller, but I left the Ambassadors Theatre with respect—huge respect—for the talented cast (more later) and its director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Also for the playwright, who managed to take such overly familiar material and turn it into a heartfelt epiphany in praise of American naturalism. Rebeck is an actor’s playwright. She creates well rounded, memorable characters, and writes plenty of good lines for actors to chew on. There are sufficient plot twists to keep audiences engaged and happy. Don’t be concerned if the story seems to stall a bit from time to time —all will be forgiven and forgotten in the stunning, and unexpected, denouément. Then there’s the added pleasure of going home still thinking about the play, and realizing afresh all the sly humour as you replay Mad House in your memory.

The plot of Mad House revolves around dying patriarch Daniel (Bill Pullman) and his fractured relationships with his adult children Michael (David Harbour), Nedward (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinéad Matthews). Michael is the primary caregiver, despite his fragile mental health, while Nedward and Pam maintain family ties at a distance (and those mostly through threats of legal action). Daniel may be failing, but he has lost none of his ability to manipulate and torture his family, even as he struggles to breathe. Much is made of son Michael’s incarceration in the state mental hospital (the ‘mad house’ of the title). But as the play develops, it is increasingly clear that the mad house is, in reality, the family home. Mad House may look like a naturalistic drama, but it plays like a Greek tragedy, with laughs. We begin to feel, as the play proceeds, that Michael’s psychotic breakdown is not so much a cry for help as a fit of divine madness. A moment of madness designed to liberate him from a cruel life where people torture him for just being different. Even his own family. The only two people to show Michael kindness are his mother (dead before the play begins) and the hospice nurse Lillian (played by Akiya Henry). But while Michael’s mother was not up to the challenge of defeating the patriarchy, Lillian shows she is made of sterner stuff. Hailing from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, she has to deal with Daniel’s racism and sexism head on, but she is more than up for the fight. Her own tragedies have strengthened her, not broken her, even as she has to work in mad houses of all kinds simply to survive. And as she and Michael forge a bond in this particular mad house, it is Lillian, ironically, who gives the madman the key to his freedom, and a way to open the door—not into more insanity, but peace. The plot of Mad House is good, substantial stuff, and the actors in this production take full advantage to show us what they can do.

Top billing goes rightly to Bill Pullman and David Harbour. If Theresa Rebeck is the actor’s playwright, then Bill Pullman is surely the actor’s actor. Pullman is cast to perfection as the irascible Daniel. He manages to be both utterly unlikeable and roguishly charming. Pullman sets up the play with his character so cleverly that David Harbour as Michael can confidently step into his role and grab all the sympathy (and most of the laughs) for what follows. It takes a confident performer to bring off the complicated and layered role of Michael, but Harbour is more than up for the task. And it is not just the Harbour/Pullman partnership that works so well in this production of Mad House. Akiya Henry, as Lillian, makes the two into three, and it is this trio that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Henry brings Lillian’s strength into play right from her first entrance, but one of the most touching moments in the play happens in the second half, when Mike and Lillian reveal to each other, the depth of their separate tragedies. In the hands, and voices, of actors less talented than Harbour and Henry, this moment of shared vulnerability might seem contrived. But it works. The whole cast of Mad House is superb, but it really is the teamwork of Pullman, Harbour and Henry, and the work of director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, that make this production so memorable. The set design by Frankie Bradshaw is both authentically American and appropriately decaying.

Mad House is a welcome addition to the West End—so heavy with revivals and musicals at the moment—so I heartily encourage those who appreciate good, well written naturalistic plays to hurry along to the Ambassadors Theatre, where star power is on full display. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Marc Brenner

 


Mad House

Ambassadors Theatre until 4th September

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Cock | ★★★ | March 2022

 

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Cock

Cock

★★★

Ambassadors Theatre

Cock

Cock

Ambassadors Theatre

Reviewed – 15th March 2022

★★★

 

“There’s conspicuous talent on stage in this revival, and a lot of well crafted technique”

 

Cock by Mike Bartlett, and directed by Marianne Elliott, has just opened for a limited run at the Ambassadors Theatre. This is a revival of a successful production at the Royal Court in 2009. The subject matter of the play addresses the conflicts and confusion that can arise over sexual attraction. Cock begins benignly enough as a lovers’ sparring match between two gay men, but explodes into a cage match during a dinner party between a gay man, a straight woman, and the man who cannot decide between them. Add to the mix an overprotective father who has come to support team gay son, and this is not a polite West End theatre dinner party play, that’s for sure. There are no winners in this match. Cock is a lively, energetic script, but whether audiences will warm to the overly simplistic characterizations of human sexuality, remains to be seen.

To be fair, the playwright is aware of this. As Mike Bartlett points out in the programme for this 2022 revival, we’ve come a long way in thinking about gender and sexuality since 2009. He’s up front about the way in which we think about such matters now. John Mercer, the production’s Gender and Sexuality consultant provides a helpful glossary of definitions in the programme. Does this let Cock off the hook? Not entirely. The character of John, and the only one, ironically, to have a recognizable name, is the young man who cannot decide whether he prefers to stay with his gay partner, or leave to make a life with the straight woman he is also in love with. In 2009, this may have seemed like an either/or choice. But in 2022, there are so many more choices available to these three. Contemporary audiences may ask themselves why the need for drama? There are any number of ways these three characters could negotiate the situation. They could even live together and raise a family.

There’s conspicuous talent on stage in this revival, and a lot of well crafted technique. Marianne Elliott’s deft and experienced direction shows in the confident way the actors seize the space, designed by Merle Hensel. It’s a space for fighting, but also for love making. There is stage magic on the floor, and eye catching neon lights that ascend and descend on trapezes. It’s all very good looking in an austere way. Unfortunately, the austerity extends to the chemistry on stage as well. The actors who play John, W and M are almost too charming and too good looking. It’s hard to believe that they’ll actually get down and dirty to fight for their man (or woman.) And while Bartlett’s choice of language may be explicit, the words are spoken by actors who are often widely distanced on the stage as they speak them, and fully clothed in nondescript attire. (Costume supervisor Helen Lovett Johnson.) For Bartlett’s cock fight idea to work in a completely satisfying way, one has to believe that it’s all going to end in blood. And in this fight, it is the woman, predictably, who exits first. Jade Anouka as W shows her power—and one can see why John (Jonathan Bailey) finds that feminine power irresistible. The ongoing joke about John finding her “mannish” is unfortunate, to say the least. Bailey does a decent job playing the vacillating John. It is Taron Egerton as M who has the most difficult role in a way—he’s got to be likeable enough so that we see the bond between him and John, but also menacing enough to be a real threat when John, he and W come together for the confrontation scene. Phil Daniels as the Father enters rather awkwardly for this showdown dinner party. It’s an overly small role and hardly gives Daniels the space to show what he can do. The acting in this production of Cock is on the cerebral side. But then the script also fails to connect in its dazzling word play. It deflects from the action—the agony of sexual betrayal; of making inauthentic choices; the heart wrenching consequences of having to deny who you really are.

This revival of Cock is a mixed bag. By all means go if you enjoy Mike Bartlett’s talent for dialogue on noticeable display. There’s a lot to appreciate in the experienced acting, directing and design. But this play lacks depth. That might be because it’s now showing its age, and the subject matter needs a fresh, more complex look at a very contemporary topic.

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Cock

Cock

Ambassadors Theatre until 4th June

 

Previously reviewed by Dominica this year:
The Forest | ★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | February 2022
When We Dead Awaken | ★★★★ | The Coronet Theatre | March 2022
Legacy | ★★★★★ | Menier Chocolate Factory | March 2022

 

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