There is always a frisson of real excitement when I find out the production I’m off to see is a world premiere. Knowing I will be one of the first people to view and comment on a show is both exciting and humbling at the same time. So, it is with some trepidation that I write about Mad as Hell receiving its world premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
In a Jamaican bar, a local girl is having a good time. Her name is Eletha Barrett (Vanessa Donovan) and works as a dance hostess with an enlarged moral sense. Yes, she will accept money to dance with men but that is as far as it goes. Sitting watching her is a middle-aged white guy (Stephen Hogan) in a rumpled suit. The two strike up a conversation and Eletha seems unimpressed with the man, even when he boasts that he is the renowned actor Peter Finch. Peter may be three sheets to the proverbial wind but is still urbane and charming and despite Eletha’s distrust of the stranger, the two of them seem to hit it off very quickly, and Eletha soon accepts Peter’s invitation to have dinner with him at the colonial club the next evening.
Back in London, Peter is having the latest, and possibly the last, row with his current girlfriend Debbie (Alexandra Mardell), a young black woman at the start of her acting career who has been hoping to use Peter’s fame – or possibly notoriety – to boost her entry in the movie business. But now, it seems to be over, Peter has found a new paramour. Given Peter’s past history, Debbie is suspicious of this new relationship and taunts him about it, but Finch is sure that Eletha is the right one for him. Is he right, and if he is, how will the world react to seeing him and Eletha together?
Based on true events in the lives of Peter Finch and Eletha, writers Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane, who also directs, have penned a nice story that covers their relationship in graphic detail. Eletha is a young innocent girl who meets and weds the famous actor and changes personality as she moves into the higher realms of the dream factory. She is quite forceful and willing to use her husband’s position to get what she wants. In fact, I have to admit that initially in the second act I really disliked the person that Eletha had turned into. However, no matter how much of a diva she became, the love that Eletha had for Peter really shines through, and by the end, I could forgive her anything. Before we move away from the writing, I have to say my favourite scene was the third. It was short and not a word was spoken but it was powerful and conveyed so much emotion that any words would really have been superfluous.
Both the lead actors really inhabited their roles. This morning I watched footage of Eletha at the Oscars and Vanessa Donovan has really captured her look and sound wonderfully. In a similar vein, Stephen Hogan is an inspired choice to play Peter Finch. Today I watched ‘Network’ for the first time and not only is it an amazing and prescient movie but you can really see how Stephen has brought Peter back to life in this play. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and they really give a depth to the story of Eletha and Peter. A word of praise too for Alexandra Mardell as Debbie. I’m not sure if this character is based on a real person but to me, Debbie represented all the people that have a dream of being a big star and are willing to make every sacrifice to get there. Unfortunately, either because of talent or timing just doesn’t make it. They may have a successful career playing bit parts but they will never be happy and Alexandra’s smart-mouthed Scouser fits the bill perfectly.
The overall production works pretty well, with a fairly minimal set but I have to say some of the set changes, particularly in the second act, were rather long, though they did give me a chance to listen to the great music that runs throughout the show – nice work by Sound Designer David Beckham. Having said that, the time flew by and I remarked to the person in the seat next to me that I was surprised how fast the first act had gone.
Overall, Mad As Hell is both an interesting play from the point of view of the characters themselves but also as an examination of the time in which they lived and the fact that just one generation ago racism was rife throughout society. The production is very well written and performed and this is one world premiere I was extremely happy to have been to.
Review by Terry Eastham
Documenting the scandalous relationship between Peter Finch and Eletha Barrett in Hollywood, Cassie McFarlane’s Mad As Hell will continue Jermyn Street Theatre’s Spring Scandal Season. A battle between race and prejudice and the courage of love, Mad As Hell will reveal for the first time how the backdrop to Finch’s iconic performance was as fiery as the role he played.
Writer and Director Cassie McFarlane
Writer Adrian Hope
Designer Cherry Truluck
Lighting Designer Tim Mascall
Sound Designer David Beckham
Choreographer Ryan Francois
Eletha Barrett – Vanessa Donovan
Peter Finch – Stephen Hogan
Debbie – Alexandra Mardell
Mad As Hell
Performance Dates Wednesday 7th February – Saturday 24th February
Mon – Sat 7.30pm, 15th & 22nd February 3.30pm
Running time 2 hours (including interval)
Age Guidance 12+
Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST