Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London (*****)
Ah, the magic of theatre! A frequently over-used, derided phrase, for once, it really applies to this delicious, fun-giving Hampstead transfer with Simon Russell Beale, Joseph Millson and Dervla Kirwan in the leading roles.Productions about theatre can often seem self-indulgent navel-gazing. But Eyre’s production based on Ian Kelly’s award-winning biography, Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London, adapted by Kelly and in which he also plays, rather well, Prince George (later George III), couldn’t be a happier marriage of subject, venue and performers.
For much of Mr Foote’s Other Leg takes place nearly 250 years ago in the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a theatre whose royal license was obtained by none other than Sam Foote, an actor/satirist/drag performer who, it seems, never knowingly forsook subversion and wit for caution.
A larger-than-life character by this account, Foote was outrageous, smart, rebellious and very fond of frocks who loved nothing better than lampooning politicians and the aristocracy of his day played here by Russell Beale in a performance that effortlessly capturing both comic and tragic dimensions, rises far beyond some recently – and that’s saying something for an actor whom many regard as one, if not the, leading actor of his generation.
Not unlike Jessica Swale’s rambunctious Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare’s Globe in September, Kelly’s resuscitation of theatrical life in Georgian London often assumes the atmosphere of riotous times.
But equally, it’s one of serious intent – of a time of bursting ideas when science and art gloriously overlapped, when the American War of Independence was just around the corner, and when the perception of actors was more one of `rogues and vagabonds’ than over-indulged celebs parading on a red carpet.
To be sure, they could be feted by royalty, as Prince George appears to have done. But life could also be brutally unstable – literally so in Foote’s case who, pace the play’s title, lost a leg in a riding accident, his amputation recreated on stage as a squeamish but comic episode of rollicking proportions.
But then, the whole production fizzes with invention from the moment it opens with its science museum bearing pickled anatomical specimens in glass jars and Jenny Galloway’s cackling factotum remarking how some of them seem vaguely familiar (sic!) to its final denouement, a moment of pure theatrical magic – a conjuration of evanescent silence and space in a theatre when performers on stage and audience in the stalls and gallery are moulded into an indefinable whole for a second – before disappearing back into the ether and maybe the arms of the Haymarket’s ghosts, one of whom surely must be Mr Foote gazing down with beatific, glinting and mischievous smile at his reincarnation.
Plaudits therefore to Eyre, his designer Tim Hatley, the afore mentioned Mr Beale but also Dervla Kirwan’s feisty female acting pioneer Peg Woffington, selling her wares off-stage as well as on, Joseph Millson’s slightly pompous David Garrick, whose reverence for Shakespeare kick-started the whole Stratford bonanza and a clutch of valuable associates – Forbes Masson as an enlightened surgeon, John Hunter and Colin Stinton as Charles Macklin, another Covent Garden acting luminary (look at the streets around WC2 and they all bear the hallmark of those colourful days).
Celebrities come and go but ideas, Eyre and Kelly, would have us consider, are with us always. And here they are at their brightest, most iridescent and transitory.
Catch while you can.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket for a limited season.
Review first published in Londongrip, Nov 2015 and slightly amended for here.