Saturday, 10 February 2018

Finchey's fine words... Mad as Hell, Jermyn Street Theatre

Stephen Hogan (photo Eddie Otchere)
I watched a Peter Finch film called No Love for Johnny a few weeks back, made in 1961 it was a very prescient view of a kind of new Labour politician detached from his grass-roots party and blowing with the wind. Very now and, as it turns out, very “Finchey”.

He hated phony and the crowning glory of his performance in Network had him saying words that he had been close to his heart through decades of film-making. The film remains painfully pertinent and, co-incidentally – or otherwise – is currently being performed as a play in the West End.

So, Peter Ingle Finch has been in the air and tonight’s play showed an aspect of his life I’d never been aware of and one that deserves wider recognition: a happy ending and a good marriage for the famous philanderer – a denouement denied so many of the characters he played of that ilk, including the one in No Love for Johnny (clue is in the title…).

Vanessa Donovan (photo Eddie Otchere)
The story begins in a Jamaican club  as a hard-drinking white man (Stephen Hogan) eyes up a beautiful black woman dancing rather splendidly to Bongo Boogie. He calls her over, offering to pay her the one shilling she charges for three dances. We naturally assume that this discourse can only go so many ways; he’s quite obnoxious and she’s pretty smart… but there’s something in him, a vulnerability, that makes her give him the benefit of the doubt.

He says he’s a movie star and she, Eletha Barrett (Vanessa Donovan) doesn’t believe him at all pointing to all the movie stars already in the club, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable among them… Sadly it’s 1965, three years after Jamaican independence, and the man has to inform her that they are both dead. Eletha is less than impressed with such things, especially after repeating a rumour about Mr Flynn which I’d never heard. She has the mark of every man, no doubt.

She dances with the man and it’s a Strictly 9 from this judge (props to choreographer Ryan Francois all round) and she finally gets his name: Peter Finch. Always eager for gossip, I lapped up the Finch roll call of famous affairs, Shirley Bassey (again, I had no idea!) was a big one as was Vivien Leigh… his good pal Larry Olivier always being on two minds about matters of intimacy. They seem to click, and he arranges to meet her at the Colonial Club but he stands her up and as she fumes in drunken disappointment we assume he’s as full of hot air as we first thought.

Liver Bird: Alexandra Mardell (photo Eddie Otchere)
The scene shifts to Finch’s London flat sometime later and the startling arrival of Debbie (Alexandra Mardell) singing Hey Big Spender; a Scouser short on skirt and long on ambition. Debbie’s trademark directness is further foil to flesh out Finch’s self-loathing. He’s mid-divorce on his second marriage and after his lover threatens to sell-all to the tabloids, shouts that he is beyond being shamed. He’s run out of pride his professional life being propped up by extensive drinking to numb the destruction of his private life.

He tells Debbie it’s all over and she hits him hard: “just ‘cos you like black girls doesn’t mean you see us as equals…” We worry she has nailed him and we root for Peter to prove us wrong.

Back to Jamaica and a poignantly worked re-union with Eletha. Sometime later It’s 1968 and the news of Martin Luther King’s death comes across on their radio… he doubles his drink in misery but Eletha is not convinced that anything will change for most black people, in America or Jamaica; there will always be racial and class snobbery. Finch makes them toast and “up yours!” to “racialists” the island over.

The relationship between the two is well developed uneasy at first – “fine words Finchey!” she cries, echoing our doubts given Finch’s behaviour, race and status – but as they so obviously endure so does their language soften and their sympathies align.

You dancin'? (photo Eddie Otchere)
The play was co-written by Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane (who also directs) and sets out their life with a mixture of imagined and actual quotations.

Most powerful of all are the extensive quotes from pivotal scenes in Network with Mr Hogan earning his crust with some of the most affecting lines in film history: he must have been exhausted! Similarly, Eletha’s words after collecting Finch's posthumous Oscar are heart-breaking and touching all the same. This is a great love story and the happiest of endings for two people who found each other and made a new life.

I could listen to Vanessa Donovan’s Jamaican accent all day and she has the ace comic timing to go with it – she plays so very well off Stephen Hogan and there’s a real depth to their connection. I could also listen to Alexandra Mardell’s Scouse accent all day, not sure if it’s her actual accent, like… but she nails it, and, on a good day, so can I, la!

Vanessa Donovan (photo Eddie Otchere)
Three energetic and thoroughly-convincing performances and a genuinely moving and heart-warming story, you would indeed have to be mad to miss Mad As Hell!

The play runs until 24th February so be quick and book your tickets now!

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ****