We must declare an interest of sorts.
Ian Kelly, who wrote this play, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, once generously donated two of the drawings that he created live on stage in The Pitman Painters as a charity raffle prize for a The West End Whingers’ party. Remember those days? We do. But only just.
Based on Kelly’s own award-winning biography (which goes by the same name – and why wouldn’t it? It’s a nifty title) of Samuel Foote, 18th century actor, impressionist, comedian, satirist, warm up man, pamphleteer, female impersonator, playwright, theatre manager of The Haymarket and writer of the first true-crime bestseller. He also, rather carelessly lost a leg, but that wasn’t to lead to his downfall. Other events led to that.
Heck, his talents were as varied and ubiquitous as that other polymath, Mr Kelly himself; actor, historical biographer, screenwriter, travel writer, artist, foodie, TV and Radio presenter and dramatist. How does he find the time? We need a lie down just thinking about it all. But is he able to grout a bathroom? We’d probably marry him if he can.
Happily Mr Kelly appears to have all limbs intact. Which is not only handy for a bit of DIY, but also for performing as the heir to the throne, Prince George, in his own play and a prosthetic would surely be visible beneath those tights. The Prince is prone to dropping in to visit the Stephen-Fry-of-his-age backstage. Let’s hope Mr Foote didn’t take any drugs when he was invited to perform at the palace, or at least kept quiet about it.
Condensing his sizeable tome must have been something of a challenge. By necessity, Foote’s backstory of debtors’ prison, marrying for money, the grisly murder of one of his uncles by another uncle who went to the gallows for his crime and various other intrigues can only be mentioned in passing or left out altogether. If Foote had been around today he would surely have appeared in one of the juicier episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?
The decision to tell his story largely backstage is a clever one. Observing the rows, insecurities, competitiveness and pomposities of actors is a hoot. Dervla Kirwan‘s Peg Woofington is a joy throughout and also provides the most moving scene of the evening. David Garrick (Joseph Millson on brilliant form) seems to prefer hanging out at the Haymarket rather than the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where he performs, a convenient excuse to expose us to two Othellos on stage at the same time. Shades of Lend Me A Tenor, but with laughs.
Things, err, kick off promisingly in a deliciously funny and agreeably rude scene – which sets the tone for the evening – with the theft of Foote’s prosthetic limb. Foote had his leg removed after an accident and the amputation is depicted with as much of the horror (tied to a chair, biting on a metal rod) as a staging could bear without sending the audience out for an interval retch. If you find this Act 1 closing scene gruesome you might be inclined to skip the detailed description in the book.
Theatre scenes are interspersed with appearances of the third polymath of the evening, Colin Stinton‘s Benjamin Franklin. Wiki lists Ben as author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. When he too makes a backstage visit he delivers a sight gag which gave us one of our biggest laughs of the evening.
As Foote, Simon Russell Beale, (more than ably supported by Micah Balfour as Frank, his assistant/dresser/general dogsbody) is at his finest, eye-rolling, comedic best. And who can resist the spectacle of seeing him spectacularly dragged up again? Not us. This was Phil’s fourth show in a row featuring men dressing as women. What is going on? Yet we do not complain.
Richard Eyre‘s production is a full of delights, even at the early stage of previews that we saw it in. The script is frequently hilarious; a mix of clever, broad and playfully silly jokes, including running gags about the acting profession, Handel, Germans and (of course) legs. All of which played to our own childish gallery.
It’s a gloriously appointed treat, not just in its terrific cast, but also the lavish sets and costumes (Tim Hatley) which more than whisper “West End transfer!”. We hope producer Sonia Friedman finds it nearly as amusing as we did. Theatre Royal Haymarket or The Garrick anyone?
If the run at Hampstead hadn’t already sold out, we’d go again at the shake of a leg.
And as that is our yardstick, it can only be…