American playwright Theresa Rebeck makes her West End Debut with Mad House, a new dark comedy.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Mad House centres around Daniel (Bill Pullman), a cantankerous older man with advanced stage emphysema. Michael (David Harbour) is Daniel’s primary caregiver. This pairing works sensationally well. Their relationship feels authentic and both characters know exactly how to get under the skin of the other.

We soon learn that Michael was previous an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital. He was diagnosed as Schizophrenic, although he explains that this is a label they stick on everyone there. The audience sees and feels Michael’s frustration throughout the performance, I’m unsure of which diagnosis this is akin to but it doesn’t resemble schizophrenia.

Akiya Henry, who i’ve been obsessed with since Macbeth at the Almeida last year, arrives as Lillian. Lillian is a hospice nurse, or the ‘death nurse’ as Michael dubs her, she’s from St Vincent and the Grenadines and is often the person most in touch with reality in the room. Due to her being outside the confines of the family she is able to see things through a lens of clarity.

Pullman embodies the character of Daniel. He slightly resembles Trump with his non-PC, and bigoted opinions. Daniel shows frustration throughout the show at no longer having the abilities that he once possessed, this again had an air of authenticity. If you visit any palliative care facility, you’ll find people upset by what they can no longer do – and sometimes this comes off as them being mean to those around them. But this is not Pullman’s play. It’s Harbour’s.

Harbour has the most full realised, layered character within the show. Michael is sarcastic, frustrated- which is palpable to the audience and provides gut wrenching scenes in which no one in his family understands him. The relationship between the two characters played by Harbour and Henry’s is incredibly special, Lillian is the only person that understands Michael and doesn’t judge him based on his diagnosis.

The first Act of this play is funny and the second Act moves more towards thought-provoking, emotional scenes.

I don’t require theatre to be ‘woke’ but when it isn’t it should have a point to it. I found it intensely uncomfortable at times to hear the outdated opinions of the characters on stage surrounding mental health and Michael in particular. There were multiple times throughout the show when Michael’s family called the hospital the ‘looney bin’ the ‘nuthouse’ or referred to him as ‘insane’. And I felt that there wasn’t enough after this to show, why these beliefs are wrong and outdated. Plus, this show is set in modern times – apparent as one of the characters wore an Apple watch, therefore for no one to challenge these beliefs felt strange.

Credit: Marc Brenner

The character you will hate the most is Pam (Sinead Matthews). She is the definition of a ‘Karen’, the stereotype we all love to hate. Pam provides some of the worst opinions around mental health, believing she can simply ‘send Michael back’ and her lack of understanding that Michael was discharged. Yes believe it or not Pam, people don’t get locked in an asylum forever anymore. I’ve never wanted to scream at a character in a theatre before but i really did here. Which shows just how good Matthews’ performance is, she does exactly what she sets out to do.

My main issue with Mad House is that it leaves too much to the imagination. There isn’t a clear conclusion to the story, I think in the hope the audience will go home and think about what they’ve witnessed and come up with their own version of what happens next. Which some may enjoy. Personally, I like an ending – and this ending was so abrupt that during the blackout audience members looked around confused at whether they should begin applauding or not.

Harbour and Henry deliver the best performances within Mad House. Harbour has definitely earned an Olivier Nomination here, for one of the greatest portrayals of a person struggling with their mental health I have ever seen. Unfortunately it’s the story which lets this show down. It’s a shame as Mad House set the scene very well in Act One, but somewhat lost its way during Act Two.

Harbour’s performance is worth the cost of a ticket alone – so if you have a chance, go and see it.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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