Mr Foote's Other Leg
By Ian Kelly
Perruques And Prosthetics
You couldn't make it up - an actor-manager and satirical playwright Samuel Foote should surely have been a character in one of his own plays. Running with a fast and ruthless upper class crowd, including the future George III and his brother the Duke of York, Foote loses his leg taking on a bet. Yet he made a comeback as a one-legged thespian with the apt singular surname worthy of the celebrated Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch which his story may have inspired.
And there's an amputation scene, strenuous but not unduly bloody, yet TLT did wonder whether Mr Clint Eastwood or Mr James Caan might want to take on the role for an American production ...
Ian Kelly adapted his own biography of Foote into the play "Mr Foote's Other Leg", now transferred from a sell-out run at the Hampstead Theatre to its natural home at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For Samuel Foote, played in this production by Simon Russell Beale with Kelly striking as his patron Prince George, operated from the Little Theatre In The Hay with a Royal Patent in the 18th century, a forerunner of the current venue.
In addition, he managed to evade the licensing and script censorship of the Lord Chamberlain by claiming amateur status for his company, charging for tea or chocolate at his "tea parties" rather than audience tickets and performing improvisations including his own drag acts.
TLT and her horse powered carriage was particularly intrigued by the theatrical premise of the play, having discovered the torrid rivalries of official and unofficial theatre companies doing research for her review of The Beaux Stratagem.
And sure enough the play does encompass rivalries between Foote the comedian and David Garrick the tragedian (a finely judged performance by Joseph Millson), the competition from opera and Hanoverian import G F Handel and the rise of the pleasure garden entertainment.
Alongside themes emerging from Foote's possibly ambiguous sexuality, his relationship with his leading actress Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), his surgeon John Hunter (Forbes Masson), his Jamaican dresser Frank Barber (Micah Balfour) and scientist and American statesman Benjamin Franklin (Colin Stinton). Not forgetting Foote's big theatrical break after the manslaughter of actor Mr Hallam (Joshua Elliott).
Past and modern literary, light entertainment, historical and current affairs parallels punch well beyond the 18th century into our present day. But it's the gamut of themes, allusions and characters, each worthy of their own play, which proved problematic for us.
The play is directed at a filmic lively pace by Richard Eyre with sumptuous design and costumes by Tim Hatley. Russell Beale holds the play together as best as he can, but it did feel like a skate through heterogenous elements of several plays and then some alternative comedy yoked self-consciously together rather than an organic whole.
Perhaps there's a clue in the mention of Laurence Sterne's shaggy dog story Tristam Shandy but the play lost its focus for TLT and her sidekick. The night time search after Foote's death for his amputated leg among the pickled relicts of medical student curiosities never fulfilled its initial promise of concentrating on Foote, the man exchanging the law for the stage yet embroiled in a complex web of interests including his own.
Nevertheless TLT did catch some more thought provoking strands such as Miss Chudleigh, a pleasingly cast Sophie Bleasdale stepped fresh out of a Gainsborough portrait. First an ingenue actress and then a cackling villainess - at least as filtered through Foote's viewpoint as we never hear her side of the story. But such possible complexities never reach an apex and are easily missed.
So an intriguing story and although there are glimpses of something darker drawing modern parallels, the play pulls in too many directions despite the best efforts of actors, including a distinctive performance by the playwright himself, director and crew. An amber light.