Mad as Hell by Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane
Jermyn Street Theatre (short walk from Piccadilly Circus) until 24th February
2 Hours including a twenty minute interval
Review Info: Veronica Stein, February 18, 2018
In search of Happy Ever After
Peter Finch was something of a casanova until he met Eletha Barrett in Jamaica. As Mad as Hell tells it, Finch asks her to dance with drunken bravado, and she is perhaps less naive but just as attractive as he expected. So began their whirlwind romance that culminated in twelve years of marriage and a child together. They travelled the world, making films and somehow maintaining their love for one another.
Happily ever after? Not quite- Finch was of course a white, English-Australian film star, and Eletha was a black woman who maintained as much agency as she could given the era. Adversity and scrutiny were everywhere, and Mad as Hell thankfully does this aspect justice as they pay ode to the couple.
Despite the often serious tone of the play, it is a warm and evocative piece of work. The three members of the company in conjunction with the costumes and direction truly evoke a different era, both in cinematic glamour and discriminatory agenda. David Shields’s work on the wardrobe does wonders to give context to Eletha’s rise in refinement, along with giving place to both elaborately lavish celebrity occasions and the far less pretentious island life the “Finchys” led. Aside from an abrupt and partially puzzling ending, the writing is pitch perfect, particularly in Finch and Barrett’s dialogue. Even though it may at times start to resemble moralizing speech, it never strays from being engaging, characterized, and authentic.
Alexandra Mardell gives a plucky performance as Debbie, Finch’s ex who is determined to find fame. Despite only being featured in two scenes, her work is highly memorable. Stephen Hogan’s Finch is stylistically convincing, for in speech pattern, accent, and approach to the filmic scenes, everything communicates an aging film star of the golden years of cinema. Vanessa Donovan’s Eletha is sensual and smart in equal measure; her coyness and wit are completely arresting: we go with the Finches every step of the way because it’s obvious why he falls in love with her- she’s sensational. Donovan and Hogan’s chemistry alone is worth seeing, for their evolution from flirty strangers to comfortably (sometimes uncomfortably) married is completely believable.
This is not a love story about happy endings, nor how love conquered all. It does not romanticize the Disney-fiable issues of race and class differences amongst lovers, and in fact touches on fetishisization and colonialism amongst several other contentious topics. Nevertheless, this couple weren’t broken by the naysayers: Mad as Hell is both a mesmerizing love story and meditation on the -isms that have broken us apart since the beginning of time. Worth a watch.
Eletha Barrett: Vanessa Donovan
Peter Finch: Stephen Hogan
Daisy/Debbie: Alexandra Mardell
Director: Cassie McFarlane
Choreographer: Ryan Francois
Lighting Designer: Tim Mascall
Sound Designer: David Beckham
Design Associate: Erika Rodriguez
Costume Supervisor: David Shields
Casting: Amy Beadel for Jill Green Casting