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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: It Is So Ordered at the Pleasance

We usually only get to hear about miscarriages of justice once they’re over – and when that happens there’s an expectation that we should be celebrating. Of course it’s good news when an innocent man or woman is released from a sentence they never should have received – but shouldn’t we also feel some anger, and a desire to change the system that imposed the sentence in the first place, stealing years or even decades from someone’s life? Why congratulate the people who got it wrong when we should be making sure they can’t ever do it again?

Photo credit: Tim Hall

It was this anger that prompted Conor Carroll to begin writing It Is So Ordered, after hearing the true story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man who spent 39 years in prison in the USA for a crime he didn’t commit. Jackson’s conviction was based on the coerced testimony of a young boy, and his release only secured when the same witness finally felt able to reveal the truth four decades later.

Opening during the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, the play begins with the fatal shooting of a shop owner and the arrest of teenage brothers Johnny and Craig. A younger boy, Bobby (Faaiz Mbelizi), is interrogated by the police and forced into giving evidence at the brothers’ trial. While Craig accepts a deal and is later released on parole, Johnny (Simon Mokhele) continues to protest his innocence and ends up with a life sentence. But he’s not the only one – Bobby must live every day with the knowledge of what he’s done, unable to retract his story for fear of repercussions for himself and his family.

Carroll’s passion for his subject is clear in every moment of this intense, urgent play, and in the heartfelt, utterly convincing performances of Faaiz Mbelizi and Simon Mokhele. As Johnny’s imprisonment stops being something that happened years ago and stretches into our own lifetimes – a reference to 9/11 revealing just how long it’s been – we’re forced to consider whether things have really changed all that much, even now, in terms of the U.S. justice system and the mistreatment by police of African Americans, which continues to make headlines today.

The play’s message is one that needs to be heard, and director Lucy Curtis opts for a stripped-back production that allows us to focus without any distractions. Carroll’s words fly thick and fast as the actors pace the floor, unafraid to make direct, confrontational eye contact with the audience. While on paper their lives may seem like opposites, in reality neither man is truly free, and their lines fit together seamlessly to form a single narrative of horrifying injustice. The stage becomes an evidence room of sorts as key details – dates, names, the outline of the murder victim and of the interrogation room – are scribbled in chalk on the floor and walls so that our eyes are constantly drawn back to them. There’s certainly a case to be answered… but it’s not Johnny or Bobby who should be on trial here.

Photo credit: Tim Hall

And yet. Despite all this, there’s a note of resilience and hope for a better future, even in the darkest moments. When the two men lift their voices and sing together of their determination to one day be free, we feel that perhaps all isn’t yet completely lost. And when Johnny begs Bobby to stand up and be heard, we know full well he’s not only addressing the other man, but the whole room – and beyond.

We never get to witness the celebratory moment of Johnny’s long-awaited release from prison, though it’s fair to assume this is imminent as the stage goes dark. Consequently, we leave the theatre feeling not relaxed and reassured by the story’s happy ending, but filled with a lingering fury at everything that’s gone before it. It Is So Ordered is a gripping and powerful hour of theatre that deserves to be seen – and acted upon.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Lucy Curtis, It Is So Ordered

Changing Face is a multi-national theatre company based in Brixton and Bristol, whose work responds to the changing face of communities worldwide. Their latest production, Conor Carroll’s It Is So Ordered, opens at the Pleasance next month and turns the spotlight on racial injustice in the USA.

It Is So Ordered is set during the outbreak of wrongful and racially motivated imprisonments in 1960s America,” says director and Changing Face co-founder Lucy Curtis. “The play charts the tragic story of two imprisoned African American men linked by a lie, exploring the power of forgiveness in an unforgiving world. Inspired by true events, it explores the injustices caused, of which the repercussions are still being felt to this day. The play concerns itself with redemption for the sins of the past which can feel unforgivable and will take an enormous feat of empathy to conquer.”

small-copy

The play’s based on the story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man from Ohio who was convicted of a crime he never committed. “He was released 39 years later in 2014,” explains Lucy. “I had no idea about his story and I was angry that I had no awareness of it. I want the audience to leave aware, awake and alive to the injustices that are happening around them. I want them to go away feeling energised to look deeper into the issues displayed and to actively become involved in the political discourse it presents. I want them to care that these events have been happening for over half a century, and I want them to address that our ignorance to it is a problem.

“We’re living in a very uncertain time: we’re seeing the re-emergence of 20th century mentalities that, it turns out, were never completely left behind. I want the audience to interrogate: how far must we go before our justice systems possess a ‘colour blind’ approach to the law. Britain often claims to possess the finest judiciary system in the world. This just isn’t true – the justice we find both here and in America are neither colour blind nor equal.”

The play’s been developed in collaboration with the Old Vic New Voices and Park Theatre: “The Old Vic New Voices supported us at a pivotal moment in this piece’s development where we were trying to turn a 20-minute short play into a full length one,” explains Lucy. “They gave us time and resources to be able to test out our script through a research and development phase. They continue to support the work by giving us free access to rehearsal space and mentorship.

“The script was then selected as part of the Park’s Script Accelerator 2016 programme. We spent four weeks at the Park developing the play with weekly meetings with artistic staff. Being able to bounce ideas off other creatives whilst working consistently within a building that supports you and is interested in the story you are trying to tell was endlessly inspiring. We were able to test out our script at Park Theatre in November – the feedback we received was instrumental in carrying this play forward.”

The cast includes Simon Mokhele, who’s been working alongside It Is So Ordered for nearly a year, and newcomer Faaiz Mbelizi. “Simon (Johnny) trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, graduating in 2014, and his input has been fundamental in the shaping of the characters, storytelling and form. To still have him championing this story and this piece is a blessing and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in April. Faaiz (Bobby) graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2016 and kickstarted his professional acting career at the Belgrade Theatre. We’re super excited to start rehearsing with him; we start at the Old Vic Workrooms in just under two weeks and we can’t wait to get stuck in.”

untitled-7-copy-min-copy

Tales of injustice like Ricky Jackson’s are far from a thing of the past, and in many cases are still going on today. “We want to focus on the stories of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes who are still in prison today, as well as the number of documented cases where people have been executed for crimes they never committed,” says Lucy. “Suicide rates are at an all-time high in our prisons and the fact that innocent men and women are serving their entire adult life in a cage is appalling.

“There’s definitely a growing shift in our collective attention to stories of injustice and wanting better in our world. The narratives presented in Netflix shows such as Making a Murderer and 13th are informing us of how historically and consistently, the institutions put in place to protect and serve us are in fact failing to do so. Since the late 60s and into the present day, the prison system in America has been used as a commodity to instil slave labour. Prisons are money making schemes for big businesses.

It Is So Ordered is a theatre piece which definitely actions itself in a similar vein to those shows, and theatre should be doing a lot more to represent these stories on its stages. We need to see the worst in order to want the better and the first step is getting people to hear these stories.”

It Is So Ordered is at the Pleasance from 5th-16th April.

Interview: Joe Sellman-Leava, Labels

Joe Sellman-Leava is co-artistic director of Worklight Theatre, and writer of the award-winning Labels, a solo show that tells a very personal story and invites us to consider its implications on a much broader political scale. In this interview, Joe explains a little about the show’s background, and how it’s been received so far.

Labels can currently be seen at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30th April – you can read my 5-star review over at Carn’s Theatre Passion – before embarking on a national tour.

If you could sum up the show in one sentence, what would it be?

A personal, political odyssey through right-wing rhetoric, prejudice and family. 

What inspired you to write Labels?

I was in a drama workshop at Exeter University in 2009, exploring racism and inequality. It was led by Emma Thompson, who was doing a series of talks and events at the University after her son Tindy experienced racist abuse during his degree. I wrote the beginnings of what eventually became Labels, in preparation for that workshop. Afterwards I kept writing and developing it in small bites. A year later, in early 2015, with a general election looming and national debate dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric, I felt it was time to finish the show and start touring it.

Emma Thompson described the show as “simple, powerful, important and funny”. What does it mean to you to have such a successful and influential supporter?

It means a lot! Firstly, it’s a huge validation, especially when the show was initially inspired by her workshop. Also, getting new audiences to trust you is hard, and Emma’s words have meant that people who might never have connected with us have now seen the show, told their friends and will hopefully stay interested in what Worklight are doing next.

Photo credit: Ben Borely
Photo credit: Ben Borely

The show is obviously very current. Did it develop in the way you expected when you started writing it, or has it taken other directions as a result of world events?

Specific events in the last 12 months or so have definitely made their impact on the show, and we felt we had a responsibility to respond to what was happening given the themes and content of the show. That said, things were different 6 years ago when I started writing this, and different again when my parents were experiencing some of the things the show discusses. As well as responding to what’s happening now, we’ve always tried to acknowledge the timeless elements of the show (people have always migrated), as well as the fact that history repeats itself: for instance, we cite Enoch Powell’s speeches alongside those of David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

You share several very personal and quite difficult memories – both your own and your family’s. Has that been hard, and does it get any easier the more you perform the show?

It’s not hard performing it, but creating the show had its challenges with regard to including personal stories. So much of the content is derived from my parents’ first hand experiences of racism, as well as other experiences or conversations within our family. When the story isn’t yours alone, you have to tread carefully so no one feels used, or exploited when it’s made public. So yes, performing the show feels fine, but getting the show to a place where it did justice to the people whose stories it’s built on, that was challenging!

How have audiences responded? Have you had any unexpected reactions?

Responses have been very positive: after most shows people are keen to chat and lots of them tell us how the story resonated because they’ve experienced racism or other forms of prejudice in their own lives. Or because they’ve seen a friend or family member on the receiving end of those experiences. As for unexpected reactions…there are sometimes people who disagree with certain opinions expressed in the show, and to be honest we always welcome this. Theatre should be a space where people can discuss, debate, disagree, and Worklight try to embrace the opportunity live performance has to create this kind of experience for audiences which, for instance, film or TV can’t in quite the same way.

Photo credit: Anna Bruce
Photo credit: Anna Bruce

You do a lot of impressions in Labels. Which was the toughest one to get the hang of? And which is your favourite?

I find the Australian accent quite tricky, so Tony Abbott is probably the toughest! My favourite is Ed Miliband… let’s hope he finds something new to do soon, or I’ll have to retire his impression!

When did Katharina [Reinthaller, the director] come on board? How has it been working with her on developing the show?

Katharina came on board in March 2015, via Jessica Beck – a director both of us have worked with a lot. Her input as director and dramaturg has been invaluable and took the show forward in new, exciting ways. She has a fantastic ear for the power of language, imagery and the way stories resonate, so the countless hours spent working through the many, many drafts of the text with her were a joy. And her equally brilliant eye for proxemics, energetic shifts and rhythmic changes meant she took the performance to a new level. It’s her first collaboration with Worklight and we’re thrilled she’ll be directing our next show, Fix!

How does it feel to be launching the new theatre space at Stratford East?

It’s a real privilege and very exciting! Stratford East is truly committed to being “a people’s theatre” and you can see this in their programme, their audiences, the very building itself. We couldn’t think of a better fit for the show.

What’s one thing you hope your audiences will take away from the show?

We want people to leave thinking about and talking about what they’ve seen!