“this beautifully presented play exposes pertinent questions about societal responsibility, and prejudice“
Troupe presents a new adaptation by Simon Reade of Christopher Isherwood’s genre-defining novel. Set in California in 1962, the play follows a day in the life of college lecturer, George; a middle-aged, gay Englishman coming to terms with the isolation caused by the sudden death of his partner Jim.
The play opens with George (Theo Fraser Steele) sleeping – a single man in a single bed. Two Paramedics (Phoebe Pryce & Freddie Gaminara) appear spirit-like running through a checklist of George’s awakening, helping him to wash, get dressed and start his day. The dialogue runs as a narrative, a commentary. The ghost of Jim (Miles Molan) wanders through the apartment and kisses George good morning.
For the first part of the day, we see George driving to work, teaching his students, and shopping. But a meeting of the neighbours illustrates the daily prejudice George must face. His college class turns into a discussion of the minority versus the majority and making food choices becomes pointless when one is cooking for just one. George wallows in his isolation. Fraser Steele is perfect in this role: in a smart suit and tie, thick glasses and brilliantined hair, speaking in a rich sardonic baritone, he looks and sounds the part.
The first-rate ensemble comes and goes around George who is ever-present on stage, entering and exiting through the audience seated on three sides of the action. Minimal props are used and versatile trucks are slid or rotated to form the bed, a car, a dining table. (Set and Costume Designer Caitlin Abbot). The movement is slick, marred only be the occasional masking. One scene in the far corner of the stage, where George sits on the toilet, is totally lost, at least from my seat (Director Philip Wilson). The subtle use of sound effects is excellent (Beth Duke) – George urinating, honking his car horn, or in one delightful moment, George’s books talking to him: “One at a time” says George as the books all gibber away together.
The second half brings with it an unexpected change in style, and we hear more about characters other than just George. Life-long English friend Charley (Olivia Darnley), another lonely outsider, wants to get closer to George but he pushes her away. Darnley’s portrayal of a G.I. bride, abandoned by both husband and teenage son, is dynamic and moving.
The following scene in which George meets his student Kenny (Miles Molan) in a bar is the standout scene of the evening. Kenny is loud, brash, and wearing the tightest of t-shirts. The simmering conversation between the two brims with unspoken lust and sexual tension.
George returns to his single bed, drunk, and the Paramedics reappear in their hospital whites with their clip boards to see the day through to its conclusion.
Does this audience feel empathy for George? His situation is certainly tragic but much of his loneliness is self-inflicted. He doesn’t know how to move on from his past to find a new present. We can see George as a portrayal of Everyman. Or more correctly Every(gay)man. And through him, this beautifully presented play exposes pertinent questions about societal responsibility, and prejudice. And pleas for our understanding of people’s hidden loneliness, isolation and otherness.
“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.