The Eighteenth Century is known to historians as the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and is an era in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. However, in theatrical terms, the mid to late 1700s was a time of repression and censorship where theatre managers tried to get around the overzealous rules of the Lord Chancellor and his control of what London’s stages put on for the paying public. There were various great theatrical types around at this time and in “Mr Foote’s Other Leg” at the Hampstead Theatre, we get an insight into the life of one of them.
It is around 1742 and backstage during the interval, the actor Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton) is giving lessons in ‘proper’ English to those that can afford them. Among his willing pupils are socialite Miss Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale), Doctor John Hunter (Forbes Masson) and the actors David Garrick (Joseph Millson), Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan) and Samuel Foote (Simon Russell Beale). Due to a loose flying cane the show Macklin is in is shut down and Garrick, Peg and Foote go off to form their own theatrical company, taking with them the irrepressible Mrs Garner (Jenny Holloway) as Theatre Manager. Together, the four of them manage to circumvent the Lord Chancellor’s rules and put on entertainment at the Little Theatre Haymarket. As their success grows, Garrick goes off to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where he revives interest in the works of Shakespeare, while Foote and Peg remain serving up comedy and light entertainment or the masses. Foote manages to hire himself a valet/footman/dresser in the shape of free-man Frank Barber (Micah Balfour). Although Garrick and Foote are fighting – along with Handel – for audiences, they remain firm friends and Garrick even manages to introduce Foote to Prince George (Ian Kelly) – later George III – who offers his patronage of Foote’s theatre. The Prince also suggests a wager between Foote and Garrick that leads to a tragic accident leading to Dr Hunter amputating Foote’s left leg, possibly ending his career.
The story of Samuel Foote is absolutely amazing and this wonderful (if not entirely historically accurate) play by Ian Kelly has really made me want to find out more about the man himself. Opening in semi-darkness with Mrs Garner and Frank searching in Dr Hunter’s museum of weird and wonderful bits of human beings – including some that would bring a tear to the eye were they still attached to the their owner – for the leg removed from Foote so that they can re-unite it with Foote’s body, I was hooked on this play immediately and spent the next couple of hours enthralled with the life of Foote and his contemporaries. The writing was on the whole really great when it concentrated on Foote and his backstage antics but, if I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the introduction of Benjamin Franklin and the various scenes of lectures at the Royal Society about the actions of the brain. For me, they didn’t really add anything to the story and were a bit of a distraction. However, this is a minor niggle when compared with the rest of the story.
Director Richard Eyre keeps the production moving well and Tim Hatley’s set is very effective in going between the various scenes. The scene where Foote’s leg is amputated was amazingly presented and is a credit to every single person involved. Turning to the actors – Simon Russell Beale gave an outstanding performance as Foote, with a wonderful sense of comic timing and a lovely way of engaging with the audience from the moment he stepped on the stage. He also looked superb in some of his gowns (and in fact all the costumes were really fantastic, so kudos to Tim Hatley) and played Foote with a real depth of understanding of the real man behind the comedian. Joseph Millson and Dervla Kirwan, as Garrick and Peg, were the perfect accompaniment to Foote and the three of them together made a formidable team. Add in Jenny Galloway as the formidable Mrs G – who had a wonderful way of delivering some fantastic one liners that had the audience rocking with laughter – and Micah Balfour’s sensible Frank trying to protect his employer from himself and you have a cast to be reckoned with.
“Mr Foote’s Other Leg” is a wonderful romp through not only the life of Samuel Foote and his contemporaries but also gives the audience a real insight into the morals and hypocrisy of the time. I was thoroughly entertained throughout the entire performance and left the theatre really wanting to do some research on Samuel Foote, a real character without equal.
Review by Terry Eastham
A Hampstead Theatre Production
Mr Foote’s Other Leg
By Ian Kelly
Directed by Richard Eyre
14th September – 17th October, 2015
Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage,
London, NW3 3EU
In Georgian London no one is more famous than Samuel Foote. Satirist, impressionist and dangerous comedian, he has become a celebrity in a city and at a moment in time when the concept of selling personality was born. He even has the ear of the king.
Adored by many, despised by some, Foote finds himself at the sharp end of attacks from the press…and a surgeon’s knife. And in an age obsessed with fame, his colleagues from the worlds of science and the stage – from Benjamin Franklin to David Garrick – begin to wonder: does fame make you mad?
Ian Kelly’s riotously funny new play, based on his award-winning biography of Foote, explores our obsession with celebrities, and their rise and fall, through the true story of the Oscar Wilde of the 18th century. Kelly’s other biographies include Antonin Careme, Beau Brummell, Giacomo Casanova (Sunday Times Biography of the Year 2008), and Dame Vivienne Westwood.
Richard Eyre returns to Hampstead following the sell out hit The Last Of The Duchess. His recent theatre credits include Ghosts (Alemida/West End), Pajama Game (Chichester/West End) and Guys and Dolls (National Theatre).
BAFTA and Olivier award-winner Simon Russell Beale makes his Hampstead debut. His recent theatre credits include King Lear (National Theatre), Privates on Parade (West End) and the forthcoming Temple (Donmar).
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes including an interval.
Tuesday 22nd September 2015