“John Patrick Elliott’s live score throbs beneath the anecdotes in perfect harmony”
Say what you want about the pandemic (and a lot has been said), but in retrospect it is vaguely possible now to glimpse some positive repercussions. And time always has a habit of painting thick coats of nostalgia over past events, so that many of us now recall fondly those empty days of 2020, freed from the guilt that naturally accompanies inactivity, but free to explore undiscovered creativity. One individual who grasped that opportunity by the horns is Jack Holden. A ripple of an idea evolved into a stream (quite literally a live stream – and one which reshaped the burgeoning artform) which in turn evolved into the first new play to open in the West End after lockdown. Its second run comes with rumours of a feature film in development.
Two little gripes to get out the way before continuing. I reviewed the show last year at the Duchess Theatre, and little – if anything – has changed; so it would be easy just to copy and paste. But if the content remains the same, the perception has altered slightly. With the added passage of time, the second-hand nature of Holden’s writing is that much more apparent. His ingenious wordplay and gifted command of the stage remains undisputed, but these are other people’s stories. It went unnoticed before, but now there is a vague sense that the integrity, of one born too late, might be questioned.
The performance does its utmost to silence any reservations, however. The Eighties weren’t Holden’s world, but they are vividly recreated in a whirlwind ninety minutes of sight, sound, song; poetry and prose. The atmosphere and soundscape are spot on, as is Holden’s vocabulary that speaks of a Soho sadly long submerged under the waves of so-called gentrification. Holden is Jack (himself), working a decade ago at ‘Switchboard’; the LGBT+ telephone helpline. Left alone on a Saturday morning in the office he receives a call from Michael. The show becomes Michael’s story – a ‘gay veteran’ who survived, but not without the battle scars and the memories of loved ones lost on the way. We meet his saviour, the barmaid Catherine (Tabby Cat), Lady Lennox who charges just two chats a day for a year’s rent in a Soho townhouse; Fat Sandy, DJ Fingers the Mancunian nutcase, Jacob and Jason – the Nymphs of Greek Street, Polari Gordon and Slutty Dave. The fleshpots and drinking dens (most of which have been killed off, while HIV targeted many of its inhabitants) are brought to sparkling life with a sense of nostalgia that is sometimes overwhelming in Holden’s masterful retelling.
It is a portrayal that is faultless and fearless. Visually unchanging, Holden slips into each character with a finely tuned precision and incredible command of expression and accents. John Patrick Elliott’s live score throbs beneath the anecdotes in perfect harmony. Just as Holden creates the illusion of a crowded stage, Elliott is a one-man orchestra; eclectic, electric, and essential. Prema Mehta’s lighting is, indeed, another member of the cast: an equally evocative voice that helps tell the story.
It is the story of a man given a death sentence who decides to ‘go out with a bang’. Who won’t just ‘face the music’ but will play it. It is the story of a survivor. One who survived first the stigma, then the disease. “We carry on” he says. “What else can we do”. Okay, Holden may be too young for his words to carry the full weight with which they are burdened, but they certainly resonate at a time when we’re recovering from another epidemic.
“Cruise” hits hard. And plays hard too. Hedonistic joy dances with tragedy. Innocence and experience pass in the night. Holden encapsulates a lost generation without mourning it. He acknowledges his nostalgic yearning, and is ultimately grateful that he was ‘born too late’. And he does so with real respect. “Cruise” is an absolute joy. A celebration. A party not to be missed.
“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.