Review: Mad as Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre

In 1977, Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his career-defining appearance in Network. His award was accepted, at the insistence of the film’s writer Paddy Chayefsky, by his third wife, Eletha Finch. Despite the couple’s twelve-year relationship, a Google search reveals hardly any information about Eletha or their life together.

Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane aim to put that right in Mad as Hell, which charts the story of Peter and Eletha from their first encounter in a bar in Jamaica. By this time, Finch was already no stranger to scandal, and was in the throes of a messy divorce from his second wife following a well-publicised affair with Shirley Bassey. But despite its personal success, his final marriage to Eletha – who was black, illegitimate and from a working class family – proved even harder for Hollywood to swallow, a fact that enraged Finch until the day he died, and directly influenced his Oscar-winning turn as “mad as hell” newsreader Howard Beale.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

Stephen Hogan gives a charismatic performance as Finch, full of impotent fury and incomprehension at the refusal of society to see beyond the colour of his wife’s skin. His exchanges with Alexandra Mardell, who plays his former lover Debbie, are particularly interesting and reveal that racism isn’t simply a case of black and white; as a Liverpool-born black woman, Debbie looks down her nose at Eletha, just as Eletha later expresses disdain for Bob Marley.

But it’s Vanessa Donovan who steals the show as Eletha; proud, determined and fiercely loyal, she’s not afraid to go after what she wants, and she stands by her man through thick and thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s always likeable, or that we agree with everything she says or does – but her devotion to her husband, and her unwavering dignity in the face of a community that believes her unworthy to be at his side, are inspiring to watch.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

The play covers twelve years in a number of relatively short scenes that us from the sunshine of Jamaica to the grey drizzle of London (with a short stop in Switzerland for good measure). With the set itself unchanged, each new location is identified by a quick rearrangement of the furniture, with light and sound design from Tim Mascall and David Beckham to help pinpoint where in the world we are. Despite the number of scene changes and an interval, the pace of the production is brisk and doesn’t lose momentum, holding our attention throughout and ending with the Oscars speech that Eletha might well have wished she could make.

Mad as Hell may be our only chance to discover the story of Eletha Finch; she certainly doesn’t get much credit anywhere else for her important role in her husband’s life and career. No doubt Hollywood would have been proud of “allowing” her on to the stage that night in 1977, when really it should have been asking, as Paddy Chayefsky did, why she wasn’t the first choice. Equally, we could look back at Eletha’s story and feel smug at the progress we’ve made since then – or we could use it as inspiration to address all the work still to do.

Mad as Hell is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th February.

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Review: Anything That Flies at Jermyn Street Theatre

When we hear the word “refugee”, there’s a certain picture that comes to mind – and it’s fair to say Otto Huberman, the elderly man in Judith Burnley’s new play Anything That Flies, is as far from that picture as you can get. 50 years after the Holocaust killed his family, he’s living in a nice flat in Belsize Park, having made his name and a comfortable living from inventing – among other things – a popular brand of speaker. After he suffers a mild stroke, his concerned daughter engages her friend Lottie to come and take care of him, much to his disgust. Not only is he fiercely independent, he also objects to Lottie’s heritage as a member of an aristocratic German family – but it turns out she has a tragic history of her own, and the two may have more in common than Otto thinks.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Otto’s cantankerousness allows for plenty of humorous moments, and the developing understanding and affection between the two characters is certainly heartwarming. More than anything, though, the play is a quietly devastating portrayal of traumatic loss – of family, friends and country – and its lasting impact over five decades. What the play does particularly well is to challenge assumptions: the idea, for instance, that anyone who wasn’t Jewish in 1940s Germany couldn’t possibly have suffered, or that a refugee who makes it to a safe (or, to use Otto’s word, sane) haven, their problems are somehow immediately at an end.

The production, directed by Alice Hamilton, also succeeds on a personal level, with two beautiful performances from Clive Merrison and Issy van Randwyck. Otto is an old man, increasingly frail and confused after his stroke, and Clive Merrison captures his volatility to perfection. He’s simultaneously proud and intellectual, rude and wildly inappropriate, frightened and haunted by loss – and any one of these personality traits can come out at any given moment.

As Lottie, Issy van Randwyck bears it all stoically, refusing to rise to her patient’s bait, though clearly troubled by both his repeated labelling of her as a Nazi and his growing physical and mental vulnerability. She’s a classy, intelligent woman, and like her we find ourselves wondering how she ended up on her hands and knees cleaning up an old man’s latest bathroom emergency; it’s only later that we come to understand she’s repaying a debt for an imagined crime committed in her childhood.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Emily Adamson and Neil Irish’s living room set fits perfectly in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, with realistic light and sound from Elliot Griggs and Max Pappenheim. In fact, the production is relentlessly spot on in its attention to detail; the above mentioned bathroom emergency, for instance, leaves little to the imagination, and even before Otto seemingly breaks the fourth wall to relive the night his family was taken (a horrifying story that finally explains the play’s title), we feel included and completely at home in his flat.

Anything That Flies is on the surface a touching story about two very different people finding some common ground. But beneath that surface is something far darker, an exploration of the nature of loss on multiple levels – and it’s here that the play really makes an impact. This well-crafted production of a powerful new play is definitely worth a visit.


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Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…


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Review: The Last Ones at Jermyn Street Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

The wonders of human behaviour will never fail to inspire. Politics, domestics and history are all intertwined. In The Last Ones the Russian playwright Gorky, knowingly admired by Chekov, creates an honest tableau of life, power, conflict, love and devastation.

The play is set in the bloody aftermath of the 1905 revolution but focuses on the struggles of a corrupt tsarist police chief named Ivan Kolomiitsev and his family. After a failed assassination and unjust accusation, the family is left in utter confusion, not knowing who to trust nor what to believe. The father’s gambling, drinking and affairs waste away all their money, and the family is forced to take refuge at wealthy Uncle Yakov’s house.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The play asks us: do we really know each other? How can one come to terms with their father, husband, brother, lover being wrong? Looking into the life of a despised and hated man – we grow affectionate to his family and begin to unpeel the layers and grey areas present in the human body. Conveying these grey areas – evil is not absolute, it is not binary nor concrete.

It is not an easy play; character journeys are very weaved together and are slightly difficult to follow. Ivan, played by Daragh O’Malley and Sonia, played by Louise Gold, have five children: Alexander, Peter, Nadia, Vera, Lyubov. Some of the children follow the father’s footsteps into corruption, greed, alcoholism and gambling, whilst the younger ones are faced with many questions. The latter, Lyubov, is damned for being “crippled” by Ivan, who she discovers in the play is actually not her biological father. This is not news to the family as Ivan’s brother Yakov, played by Tim Woodward, and Sonia’s old love affair is not as secret as they would hope.

Ivan is attempting to bribe his way back into the police force and regain his power. However, power has a price. Peter and Vera begin to learn the truth about their father when a young man, a revolutionary, explains to him the facts. Then the mother of the innocent child incarcerated for Ivan’s assassination comes to the house to speak to Sonia, and things begin to unravel. Conflict increases throughout to finally culminate in a desolate open-ended finale, in which corruption and evil triumph over the rest.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Anthony Biggs’ production is intense and moving at times. The set, designed by Cecilia Trono, is simple, but appropriate to the atmosphere created. The performances fluctuate between moments of truthfulness and other slightly weaker moments, although the show kept my attention throughout and moved me with its passionate honesty. It is a play about people, the human body and mind. We too often forget the importance of focusing on the reasons and objectives behind our actions. The Last Ones brings them to the forefront, putting us face to face with difficult questions. What would you have done in their position?


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Review: All Our Children, Jermyn Street Theatre

It was never going to be an easy play to watch. Stephen Unwin makes his debut as a playwright with All Our Children, a chilling expose of the brutal programme that saw Nazi Germany send thousands of disabled children to their deaths, ostensibly to ease the financial burden on the state. Over the course of one day, we see the situation through the eyes of five characters, each with a different perspective – and leave disturbed and shaken by the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

The subject matter sounds grim, and it is – not for what we see but rather what we don’t. There are no children in the play; we never leave the comfortable office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), chief paediatrician at a children’s clinic near Cologne. But we come to know them, through the pain of a mother who’s lost her son, the remorse of another who’s realised the patients in the clinic are, after all, “just children”, and through the cowardly attempts of a man who once swore to do no harm to justify sending his innocent charges to be murdered.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

It’s this, more than anything, that really sends a chill down the spine. Franz is an experienced and compassionate doctor; he’s often funny, has an obvious affection for his devoted maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), and dislikes the odious SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) who’s there to make sure he toes the line and meets his grotesque quotas. Franz could be quite a likeable guy, in fact, but for the cold, clinical way he reels off the official justifications for his actions. Unlike the fanatical Schmidt, who simply hates the clinic’s patients and everything they represent, it’s obvious from the doctor’s hangdog expression, late night drinking and constant efforts to hide the truth from Martha that he knows full well what he’s doing is wrong. The arrival of David Yelland’s Bishop von Galen (a real historical figure, whose public opposition to the programme was key to its eventual abolition) could hardly be more timely, and his dignified rage in the face of Franz’s cowardice speaks for all of us.

The play is a very personal project for Stephen Unwin, who also directs, and there’s no doubting the passion or anger behind every word – but he resists the urge to preach his views, instead presenting a sensitive and balanced debate from which ultimately it’s the compassionate voices that cry out the loudest. While the men each get their turn to argue the intellectual and moral points of the debate, the two women – both mothers – represent the emotional heart of the play, and it’s their scenes that really drive home the horror of what’s happening. Lucy Speed’s Frau Pabst breaks our hearts as she describes her son with none of the eloquence of the men but a great deal more feeling; she knows Stefan will never have a job or pay tax – but he’s her son and she can’t bring herself to share the view that his is a life not worth living. And Martha’s softly spoken realisation that the patients she used to feel so sorry for are no different to her own three “normal” children has just as much impact as the bishop’s outrage.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

A few slightly artificial sound effects aside, All Our Children is an incredibly effective and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a warning from history that reminds us of our continuing duty to look out for those who need our help, particularly at a time of government cuts and growing intolerance. We may not be in Nazi Germany, and it may not be 1941 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learnt, or battles to be fought.


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