The Scandal season continues at Jermyn Street Theatre, this time Mad As Hell charts the years leading up to notorious actor Peter Finch winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Network. The timing of the run is quite apt, as the National Theatre’s stage version of the film enters its final weeks – and the film itself is available to watch through Netflix, if you’re interested.
It begins in the early 60s; Finch is in a bar in Jamaica, where he has a chance encounter with dancing girl Eletha Barrett. The pair get chatting and there is an instant rapport between them – surprising herself, Eletha accepts his invitation of dinner the following evening, only to be stood up. It transpires that Peter has an aspiring actress girlfriend back in London, though he feels that relationship has run its course and ends it, before heading off to Hollywood for a new job – and then returning to Jamaica where Eletha is waiting. They become a couple but Peter resists the idea of marriage for several years (even when they have a child together), though they do eventually tie the knot and Eletha revels in her status as Mrs Finch.
Until last year, I’m afraid I was completely ignorant of Network (though there is a chance some of its references have seeped in via other means, without me yet knowing it), but as the stage adaptation draws more and more admirers – and I wait impatiently to try my luck at seeing it through Friday Rush – Mad as Hell acts as a kind of prologue, and a great insight into the colourful life of Peter Finch. Known as a womaniser and a hell-raiser, Finch also managed to stand out from the crowd in a more positive way by going against the “racialist” views that pervaded 20th century life, particularly in America. I couldn’t tell you how much is actually true, but Adrian Hope & Cassie McFarlane’s script makes for a compelling story.
It can be a little too abstract at times – for example, location and time can be an issue. Gaps in time are occasionally dropped into the dialogue, though it’s quite clumsy and inconsistent; it would be smoother and more helpful to project the year (and perhaps the location) between scenes instead. This would work well alongside the odd well-known cue, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the emergence of reggae music. On the whole, however, it is well written and manages to be very funny, particularly early on – and becomes more affecting as Finch takes on his role of a lifetime, and Eletha makes her groundbreaking Oscars speech to impromptu applause from the audience.
The simple set design functions well for all locations, with fairly swift furniture rearrangements between scenes – all covered up as far as possible with relevant audio, such as the shipping forecast and popular music, thanks to sound design from David Beckham (no, not that one). Tim Mascall’s lighting design also plays a part, creating the right mood & atmosphere.
The cast of three are all brilliant. Alexandra Mardell doubles effectively as Debbie (the ambitious girlfriend) and Daisy (the Finchs’ maid), though most of her time onstage is spent as the former – and she makes quite an impression! Stephen Hogan leads excellently as the charismatic Peter Finch; he has great stage presence, and gives Finch a very natural British/Australian lilt. But the play is as much about Eletha Barrett as it is about Peter Finch, and Vanessa Donovan puts in a barnstorming performance as the eventual Mrs Finch; her Jamaican accent is impeccable, and she has fantastic comic timing. Donovan’s turn shows how Eletha changes over time, all the while remaining steadfastly loyal to “Finchy” and his career.
My verdict? An excellent new play that unearths the story of Peter Finch & Eletha Barrett, and the obstacles they faced during their time together – an excellent production.
Mad As Hell runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 February 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.