Monday, 28 September 2015

Theatre review: Mr Foote's Other Leg

In what must be one of history's cruellest cases of nominative determinism, the 18th century actor Samuel Foote really did lose a leg. Ian Kelly adapts (and appears in) his own historical biography Mr Foote's Other Leg, in which Foote (Simon Russell Beale) meets fellow aspiring actors Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan) and David Garrick (Joseph Millson) at an elocution class. When their tutor, and the leading actor of his day, Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton) accidentally kills a co-star on stage he's banned from acting, and his students see an opportunity. With the Lord Chamberlain coming down hard on new plays, the three decide to focus instead on revivals of a respected but neglected playwright - William Shakespeare. For Garrick, the rest is history: He became one of the first superstar actors, and still has a London theatre named after him. And his love of Shakespeare proved infectious, helping create the icon we know today.

But while he was specialising in tragedy at Drury Lane and in Stratford-upon-Avon, his colleagues went their own way to become comic stars at what would become the Theatre Royal Haymarket, both companies enjoying the patronage of George III (Kelly.)

United in their loathing of Handel, whose concerts invariably steal all their audiences, the two companies maintain a mostly friendly rivalry. When they go head-to-head with productions of Othello - Foote presenting his version as a comedy - things get a bit nastier: While trying to win a bet, Foote falls off the King's horse and nearly dies. He only survives by having his left leg amputated, which should be the end of his career. But thanks to a prosthetic leg designed by Benjamin Franklin (Stinton,) he's soon back on stage, milking his own disability for comic effect.

It's pretty obvious why Foote is a likely subject to put back on stage - a flamboyant character who enjoyed appearing in drag, there's also the flipside of his troubled life backstage, revelations about his sexuality competing with the physical pain from his amputation as to which will push his sanity over the edge first. And it's a part that SRB seems to be having a lot of fun with, relishing the silly parts almost as much as Foote himself: The humour occasionally balances between the ridiculous and the cutting, as when Foote and Garrick's Othellos, both in blackface, get into a slap fight in front of the Jamaican footman Frank (Micah Balfour.) But he also has moving moments with Kirwan's proto-fag-hag Peg, and an understated but powerful breakdown as the public affection he's held in isn't enough to save him from rumours of an inappropriate relationship with Frank.

For me the play also had an interesting angle in one of the sub-plots, because it covers some of the history dealt with in James Shapiro's book Contested Will: Garrick's Shakespeare festivals and the way his own success was tied up in the growing public love for the playwright (even though Garrick himself insisted on heavily rewriting the plays.) The fact that Shakespeare wasn't as well-regarded then as he is now is highlighted in a running gag where Foote thinks his birthplace is called Stretford.

But it's hard to deny that Richard Eyre's production, with its casting coup in the central role, strong backup in the rest of the cast, an elegant set and scene-stealing costumes from Tim Hatley, is propping up a play that's not actually all that strong. The episodic nature isn't too much of a problem in the broadly comic first act, but as things get darker in the second it starts to feel like a case of Multiple Ending Syndrome. Framing the story with Frank and dresser Mrs Garner (Jenny Galloway - someone's finally cast her and SRB together but not as siblings, go figure,) stealing Foote's pickled leg from a medical museum so it can be buried with the rest of him, is a great introduction to some of the grotesqueries of the period; but continuing this theme throughout with Foote's doctor John Hunter (Forbes Masson) discussing the medical advances he's making, seems to be attempting a parallel the play never makes sense of. A rather clumsy and uneven play, Mr Foote's Other Leg probably won't get revived too often but this premiere production lifts it. Having sold out before even opening, it seems a good bet for a transfer if SRB's schedule allows it.

Mr Foote's Other Leg by Ian Kelly is booking until the 17th of October at Hampstead Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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