Review by Peter Blennerhassett
Madhouse, written by Una McKevitt and PJ Gallagher and directed by Cathal Cleary, is the story of Bobby, played by Barry Kinsella, recounting his unusual childhood. Some people grow up with grandparents or boarders in their house. Bobby grew up with six psychiatric patients, all grown men, in the care of his mother in his. Now that’s an interesting premise. Except, it’s not a premise. This was actually the bizarre situation for PJ Gallagher growing up and Madhouse is the dramatisation of his childhood stories. Fiction usually isn’t this strange.
Bobby, who is the story’s version of PJ, tells the audience about the eccentric characters from his past, going through the patients, his mother, father and many more, painting colourful pictures of each. He presents these memories with a quick North Dublin wit that would easily find a home in Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy, drawing a lot of humour from accurate, distinctly Dublin-based mannerisms and colloquialisms. The narrative flips between points in his childhood, with his mother, played by Katherine Lynch, helping to weave the memories before the audience.
Madhouse is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of Bobby’s outlook growing up in this unique situation and how these characters helped shape him as a person. It is not a play about mental health and it doesn’t pretend to be, but it does handle the subject with realism and compassion. Madhouse transitions and balances the funny with the dark excellently. Heavier moments hit home and are not reduced by the humour, while the jokes never feel out of place or exploitative. Strong performances by Barry Kinsella and Katherine Lynch easily captivate the audience throughout.
Madhouse may leave some with a feeling that the story doesn’t go anywhere, as the play ends quite abruptly. This was how I initially felt because, admittedly, I watched it believing that it was all fictional. Reality doesn’t end with cathartic realisations, the stories of people’s lives should never be expected to reach some preordained destination. I’m glad that the story presented didn’t pander to these expectations and force something fake. What is presented is something real. And something that is most definitely worth seeing.
Madhouse is running in Abbey Peacock Theatre till the 22nd of September