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Mad As Hell review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘engaging and well-constructed’

Vanessa Donovan in Mad As Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Eddie Otchere Vanessa Donovan in Mad As Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Eddie Otchere

Race and class prejudice loom large in Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane’s engaging Mad As Hell. While the stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s film Network dazzles audiences at the National Theatre, this piece throws light on the seldom-told tale of its original star Peter Finch’s marriage to Jamaican Eletha Barrett.

At first, Stephen Hogan’s washed-up womaniser Finch conforms to the worst stereotypes of white male privilege as he drunkenly pays a shilling to dance with a local girl, Barrett, in a Caribbean bar, soon after Jamaica’s independence in the early 1960s. With two failed marriages and a succession of short-term girlfriends, Finch is scarcely a decent prospect, but somehow the two hit it off and their relationship begins to flourish.

Yet neither character conforms to initial stereotype: coming from a rough part of Kingston, Vanessa Donovan’s captivating Barrett suffers class snobbery at home, as well as racism in Britain and the US, but nonetheless she sees the good in the rum-sodden Finch; behind her strait-laced, firm approach lurks a deep-held affection. Hogan shows the film star’s inner turmoil as he rails against the unreconstructed attitudes of his peers. Meanwhile, Alexandra Mardell’s wannabe star Daisy is a potent reminder of Finch’s dissolute former life.

The straightforward set design allows for efficient scene changes, while David Beckham’s sound design uses reggae and pop hits of the time to place the action firmly in period.

When Barrett shyly takes to the stage to collect Finch’s best actor Oscar, her Caribbean-inflected acceptance speech highlights the “isms and schisms” still rife in white-dominated Hollywood. Mad As Hell shows how far we have come in the four decades since, but there’s still a way to go.

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Verdict
Engaging, well-constructed new play that sheds light on Network star Peter Finch’s marriage to Eletha Barrett
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