Network is one of the most exciting plays of the year, running at the National and starring the impeccable Bryan Cranston. That play is based on Paddy Chayefskey’s film about network news anchor Howard Beale whose infamous ‘Mad as Hell’ rant is one of American cinema’s most poignant monologues.
Now, across the capital in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, the story of the actor who first brought the character to life, Peter Finch is told in Mad as Hell. More specifically, it tells of Finch’s relationship with Eletha Barrett, a dancer he met in Jamaica who managed to steer him away from his promiscuous on-set tendencies.
Writers Adrian Hope and Cassie Mcfarlane take us through the latter years of Finch’s life: the pair meeting in Jamaica, the actor deciding he no longer wants to chase aspiring actresses like Daisy (a great performance by Alexandra Mardell) back in London and returning to Jamaica to find his love. Along the way, Finch bemoans the racism back in his home country, and we learn the pressures on Eletha as a black woman in the Hollywood scene. Their relationship is unconventional, but ultimately, their love does prevail.
As Finch posthumously wins the Oscar for the role of a lifetime, Eletha collects it for him (which is true), but Hope and Mcfarlane present a ‘what she should have said’ version of her speech. The words for the Academy and Hollywood that she had in her head: “up yours”.
There isn’t too much conflict to the story. The first act feels very much a classic romance, but while Finch’s relationship with alcohol does threaten the pair’s relationship, but it does show how they were soulmates, made for each other.
Vanessa Donovan and Stephen Hogan do have a suave chemistry about them. Donovan plays the Jamaican dancer with grace, while Hogan is suave as Peter. While some lines from Network are quoted, I was grateful the text just about avoided the cliche of stealing the speech the play gets its title from.
It’s all played out on a rather bare, shabby looking set, but the point of the story is that it didn’t matter where they were - Hollywood, London, Jamaica, Switzerland… - it was always about Finch and Eletha. A sweet homage to the couple.