In an article for The Guardian, Mad as Hell co-writer and director Cassie McFarlane describes hearing about Eletha Barrett from her aunt in Jamaica. She heard tales of the Barrett’s wildness, this poised beehived woman who scandalised the neighbourhood in her seduction of a movie star, once seen stripping from elegant couture to a bikini on a hotel terrace. She sounds a fascinating character, the third wife of actor Peter Finch (famous for the title ‘mad as hell’ speech in the film of Network) who apparently tamed his womanising ways, and exuded class and grace in the face of prejudice at the academy and on her home turf.
Was she an innocent island girl, butted across international movie sets in Peter Finch’s headwind? Or a strong and independent partner in his ‘up yours’ attitude to the racist attitudes of the day?
Vanessa Donovan walks confidently in Barrett’s shoes, her head held high and her spirit unbowed. She disrupts any easy division between America’s bigotry and liberal Jamaica of the period, expressing her own classist disgust at Rastafarians despite having had her own relationship looked down upon in island society. It was not considered shocking for Finch to marry a local, the snobbery was for her lowly heritage. Donovan’s affection for her ‘Finchy’ (Stephen Hogan) comes across as genuinely sweet and unforced, but is in this narrative rendered rather inexplicable.
Finch’s lack of appeal has nothing to do with Hogan’s excellent performance, in fact he’s right on the money with this dude that existed at somewhere on the road of good intentions and white saviour complex. ‘You need to go to Jamaica to get laid now we’re getting equality,’ accuses his discarded girlfriend Daisy (Alexandra Mardell) ‘You want to still feel like the white master.’ The cuttingly hilarious Mardell articulates the unsaid in Mad As Hell, the difficulty in truly investing in Finch and Barrett’s romance when its foundations are so questionable. The 30-year age gap, his callous initial attitude to her (standing her up humiliatingly on their first date), his alcoholic lording over the dancehall like some colonialist throwback, his unrepentant past of infidelity and abandonment of his children, make her devotion seem, at best, misguided.
The production is frustrating in its inconsistency, when it is good it is very good and when its bad, it’s bleurrgh. The acting is stellar, the writing frequently fresh, the accents bang on and the wigs so perfect as to be lustful. But the stakes never feel high and the romance between our leads surprisingly pedestrian considering their circumstances. McFarlane’s direction is also hampered by overly long clunky scene changes which largely consist of moving a noisy drinks trolley from one edge of the set to the other. An action largely negated by the fact that no character can seem to remember which glass they are drinking out of.
The play doesn’t just fail the Bechdel test in the lack of interaction between two women (the one encounter they have ends in Daisy congratulating Finch on his ‘choice’ in Eletha. WHY DO THEY THINK HE’S SUCH A CATCH? Seriously, is it just the fame? The money? – Don’t try and tell us it’s his jive dancing. We don’t believe you) but even Barrett’s soliloquies eternally circle Finch as the centre of her universe. There is a captivating story to be told here (maybe two, Daisy’s aside as to being the first black woman to star in a Carry-On film feels like it has legs as a one woman show) but for it to emerge, the spotlight feels like it needs to be swung away from Finch and fully onto the woman who was the talk of the island.
Mad as Hell is on until 24 February 2018 at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Click here for more details.