In his latest stage review, TIM WALKER watches Mad as Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre, London.
Mad as Hell
Jermyn Street Theatre, London, until February 24
More than 40 years on, Peter Finch’s anguished cry in the Oscar-winning film Network – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ – can now officially be regarded as a prophecy.
The populist rabble rouser that he played, cynically capitalising on the sense that most ordinary people have of being hard-done-by, was the prototype for characters like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and, of course, our very own Nigel Farage.
The National Theatre acknowledged the resonance that Paddy Chayefsky’s story has with our times in a stage adaptation last year that starred Bryan Cranston as the television-personality-turned-messiah.
What the real characters who now stand up and shout about how unhappy they are with the world have in common is that they can seldom, if ever, explain how they would fix it.
Their motivations are also, to put it mildly, complicated. Often, of course, they blame everything that has gone wrong on outsiders, and so there is an irony at the heart of Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane’s play Mad as Hell, which seeks to explain why Finch was so passionate about this particular film role.
So far from hating outsiders, the play posits the case that Finch was channeling the fury he felt about the prejudice he faced when, two years before he started work on the film, he had married his third wife, Eletha Barrett, who happened to be Jamaican, as well as 27 years his junior.
The Australian-English actor first laid eyes upon her in a club on the island as he swigged Jack Daniels and soon the two outsiders forged a bond that enabled them to shout back at a disapproving world: ‘Up yours, you racialist shits.’
It’s a tall order to play a man as familiar and charismatic as Finch, but Stephen Hogan – the BBC Redwater star – makes a good fist of it. He captures Finch’s outrage that people in the Hollywood community, and on the island of Jamaica, felt in a position to pontificate on how he should conduct his private life.
Vanessa Donovan’s Eletha is sufficiently spirited and sexy to make it believable that Finch would want to risk another marriage with her and there is a wonderful chemistry between the two. This actress has a rare ability to communicate intensely complicated thoughts and feelings with her eyes.
McFarlane, who comes from Jamaica, directs the play she has co-written with real flair. There is a poignant turn, along the way, from Alexandra Mardell as an earlier, discarded flame of Finch.
This is a quirky, but intelligent new play. Incidentally, the Best Actor award that Finch won for Network had, sadly, to be announced posthumously.
He had a heart attack in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel and was pronounced dead at the age of just 60. Angriness of the kind he succumbed to should always come with a health warning.