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'Mad House' review — David Harbour commands a powerful testament to family grief

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

When we grieve, what do we think about? We may reflect on the happy memories spent with one another. We may realise just how much somebody meant to us while they were living. But when we’re faced with anticipatory grief, our reactions are equally individual.

Over two hours, Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy, Mad House, explores the ways in which death affects us all, both for the person dying and those who live. And if you’re going through a personal loss, seeing Mad House is cathartic. At multiple times, I shed a tear as Mad House normalised the confusing parts of death.

The Mad House play centres on Daniel and Michael. Living in rural Pennsylvania, they’re often stuck staring at the same four walls. Daniel’s dying of emphysema (can’t I just have one more cigarette, he continually questions), and Michael finds himself forced to look after his dying father. He’s done so without help for 11 months.

But in what could be Daniel’s final moments, Michael calls upon his siblings, Pam and Nedward, to assist him. At the same time, a local hospice aid, Lillian, looks after Daniel at home, providing Michael with much needed respite.

There’s further respite too in the form of two hookers, Devon and Skylar, (played by Hanako Footman and Charlie Oscar respectively), who Michael invites to the house for “fun.” Daniel tries to get involved, but his deteriorating condition means “touching a tit” almost kills him. So ensues many heated family arguments where the siblings bare their lives to one another and explain their plans for a larger inheritance, before they come together for the family’s tender final moments.

Mad House packs dozens of metaphorical and word-play punches, thanks to Rebeck's cutting script and Moritz von Stuelpnagel directing an authentic family drama laced with dark comedic flourishes. "Dreaming of a diagnosis" repeats Michael as he wishes for his father's last breath, and it's met with a collective sharp intake of breath from the audience.

The direction complements Rebeck’s writing, both making stand-out choices that reflect the age and time of elderly characters. A simple line — “the American legal system is all a mess” — notably received loud cheers from the audience.

David Harbour delivers a commanding performance as Michael, a troubled son who navigates his own instabilities after coming out of a mental health unit. It’s impossible to be distracted when Harbour’s on stage, especially in a frenzied moment where he comes to learn of what happened while he was in hospital that's reminiscent of the Incredible Hulk.

Harbour and Bill Pullman bounce off one another in their macabre father/son relationship, complete with plenty of whiskey, spitting in the eye, and throwing food away.

They’re balanced by Akiya Henry, who delivers a stunning performance as Lilian. Starting off as an innocent aid, she’s eventually an in situ mediator — an Act Two scene between Harbour and Henry where they discuss what's in the stars is particularly moving.

Frankie Bradshaw’s stunning set design reveals itself throughout the play, with Act One taking place inside the house and Act Two on the front porch. Mad House shines creatively, courtesy of haunting interludes by Isobel Waller-Bridge, flickering lights by Prema Mehta, and appropriately downtrodden costumes by Tilly Grimes.

During Mad House, there’s a sub-plot surrounding a pencil. To avoid spoilers, I won’t digress into what happens to the pencil, but it did leave me wondering about how we as a society deal with loss. When we’re faced with a bereavement, can it sharpen our emotions? Or can loss make us want to erase everything we know? Once you’ve watched Mad House, you won’t want to erase this play from memory.

Mad House is at the Ambassadors Theatre to 4 September. Book Mad House tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Mad House cast (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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