A little thing can have an amazing effect on the world. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s poem that starts “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost” and ends up with an entire kingdom being given away all because a nail was missing. A historical example of little things changing the life of someone occurred in 1813 when five words uttered in a fit of pique by Britain’s greatest dandy ruined his life and started a downward spiral that ended in madness. The words were “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?“. The consequences of this utterance can be seen in Ron Hutchinson’s play Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness which has opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
It is 1819 and in a run down room in a French convent, Mr Beau Brummell (Seán Brosnan) is sitting in his bath threatening to slash his throat with a razor. Trying to stop him from doing this is his valet Austin (Richard Latham) who informs him that various members of the British nobility are waiting to see him. They aren’t but to Beau it doesn’t matter as his mind has slipped out of gear and he constantly thinks about his falling out with the Prince of Wales – now King George IV – and believing that the king will rehabilitate him into British society once more. Whilst Beau and his valet are living in reduced circumstances – well, let’s face it they are on the edge of poverty – Beau still likes to think of himself as an elegant wit, whose acerbic comments can reduce a man to jelly before him. Austin is a man with secrets and puts up with Beau’s snipes and, repetitive conversation about his conversion of British fashion from the overly ornate, to one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored bespoke garments. Day follows day for Beau and Austin until the day that King George IV is visiting France an event that is eagerly anticipated by Beau and Austin, each of whom has their own reasons for wanting to see Britain’s monarch as he goes past.
Beau Brummell is an interesting fellow. He could be considered the first celebrity who was famous just for being famous, a state of affairs that has become all too common these days. I have spent some time this morning looking up his history on the internet and can say that in the historical context, Ron Hutchinson’s writing is spot on. Beau’s mental condition is well written as is Austin’s with his various ideas and standards competing for attention in the character. I think the only issue I have with the writing is that, to me, the play felt too long. There seemed to be quite a bit of repetition in the interaction between Austin and Beau and at times it felt like the pace was dropping, causing me to lose focus on the characters and what they were saying. Personally, I would have dropped about twenty minutes of the narrative and presented the piece as a single act play – I found the interval really affected the mood that had been built up in the first act. Having said that, there were some wonderful moments. Beau may be losing his mind but is a superb orator. Okay, he talks about clothing and grooming way too much but there is a nobleness in his words that can’t help but hold an audience.
Seán Brosnan is a mature actor who, even when standing half naked manages to portray Beau as he was. A tall, patrician figure who seemed to make an art form of looking down his nose at those ‘beneath’ him. However, Richard Latham’s Austin is more than a match for Beau and the two of them have a nice chemistry as they interact with each other. I mentioned to my companion after the show that there were times when the two characters, trapped together in a mutual loathing, reminded me of the old comedy show ‘Steptoe and Son’. The two actors felt so natural together in that respect. One quick moment which I thought was absolutely brilliant was the reaction of both characters as King George IV’s carriage turned into the street. Whilst surprising, they were very funny and extremely well played.
The stage area of the Jermyn Street Theatre is relatively small and Helen Coyston does a pretty good job of turning it into a dilapidated room for Beau to spend the last days of his life, and Director Peter Craze moves his actors around well. Brummel is a fascinating chap and this production does him justice in giving the audience glimpses of the fascinating man that dominated British fashion and is pretty much responsible for the business suited city boys today.
Overall, Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness, was a gentle romp through early 19th century ideas mixed with the moral and sartorial standards of the age. A nice examination of celebrity – both then and now – and the effect when that spotlight moves on to someone else. Once the show finishes, walk down Jermyn Street and pay homage to the statue of Beau Brummell and marvel at this man as you read his second most famous quote “To be truly elegant one should not be noticed”.
Review by Terry Eastham
It is the winter of 1819. The most stylish man of his day (to whom a statue will later be raised in Jermyn Street) lives in exile in a madhouse in Calais. The mind of George Bryan Brummell, known as The Beau, revels in past glories when he dominated the worlds of fashion, wit and dress. He is convinced that his old friend and patron the Prince of Wales (now King George IV) will visit him and restore his position in society. Today, the King is coming to Calais! Beau’s valet, however, fired by revolutionary zeal, has other plans for the British monarch…
Combining the grandeur of King Lear with the regency farce of Blackadder III, this superb black comedy has been described as “Waiting for Godot for the fashion conscious”.
Sean Brosnan and Richard Latham.
Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness
Mon, 13th February – Sat, 11th March
European Arts Company in association
with Jermyn Street Theatre
Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness
by Emmy award winning writer Ron Hutchinson.
Directed by Peter Craze.