Playwright Ian Kelly based his new play, Mr. Foote’s Other Leg on his
award-winning book of the same name and in the script he tackles celebrity,
cross-dressing, the role of royalty, sexual freedom, obsessive gambling, breast
cancer, adultery and aristocracy – and that is only in the first act.
The play centers on the (real) celebrity actor and
playwright, Samuel Foote, who trod the very boards of the Royal Haymarket
Theatre where I caught the performance during a recent trip to London.
Foote, a man who became tabloid fodder and a celebrity who
would have put The Kardashians to shame (his life bumped the American Revolution
off the front page of British newspapers in 1776), Foote is brought to
uproarious life by the incomparable British actor, Simon Russell Beale. When I
spoke to Beale backstage after the show, he confided he hasn't performed on our
shores in a decade and would like to return. Based on the enormity of his
talent and his perfect comedic timing, don’t be surprised if he becomes a
household name here in the States soon. Broadway must be calling him. He is a
marvel to watch.
Donning women’s gowns, wigs, hats and fake breasts, Beale steals
every scene he is in and that is no easy feat since he appears with Dervla
Kirwan as the gaily promiscuous Irish actress, Peg Woffington; social climbing
actor David Garrick (Joseph Millson); and even Ian Kelly, the playwright,
taking a comic turn himself as King George III. These actors also share the
spotlight with newcomer Micah Balfour as Francis Barber, a Jamaican manservant,
and it is his part that helps introduce pathos and tragedy to the second act,
where Foote descends into madness and ruin.
But before we get there, the audience is treated to many
laugh-out-loud moments delivered in a fast-paced banter by the main characters,
as well as supporting appearances by our own Benjamin Franklin and the theatre
manager, Mrs. Garner (Jenny Galloway), who brings backstage to life as though
we were there and has some of the play’s sassiest lines to help her do so.
Reviewers have called the play “ramshackle” and I agree that
as it is hard to understand why certain themes run through the play (fetuses in
formaldehyde, Franklin with his kite), while others (a leg amputation, an
on-stage death, a royal warrant awarded the Haymarket theatre), advance the
action past the sheer exuberance of the comedic lines into the black humor
which overtakes the play near its conclusion.
I suggest employing the adage “take what you like and leave the rest” if
you are in the audience for this play.
The Royal Haymarket Theatre is the perfect venue as many of
these “based-on-a-true-story” moments happened right there (and the refurbished
theatre is a visual delight with rich velvet curtains, damask wallpaper,
crystal chandeliers and gold leaf paint adorning cornices and moldings) and, if
the story itself evokes comparisons to Oscar Wilde’s infamous persecution, it
is no accident. Wilde debuted several of his own plays at the Royal Haymarket
and it seems inevitable that Foote might face the same fate as the Irish
playwright. How odd it is that what is referred to as being “gay” and inspires
pride parades in these times was called “deviant” and summoned prison chains
and ignominy in the 18th century. But there is no hiding from
history and how Foote’s own story plays out is hinted at in the script (and
fully described in the book). Because of Beale’s
performance, you will care (come
prepared with hankies.)
The play is by turns hilarious, empathetic, tragic, absurd
and luminous. Kelly, writer of acclaimed biographies of Beau Brummell and Casanova,
captured Georgian London and its celebrity-obsessed society perfectly and
provided just the right words to serve as pearls issuing forth from Foote’s
often petulant mouth as he changes moods as often as his dresses. He hisses obscenities,
bitches at his fellow actors, hatches absurd schemes (Othello as a musical comedy) and generally wobbles his way through
a very uneven life (the imbalance of which can’t be wholly blamed on losing one
of his legs in a bet.)
runs through January 23, 2015 at the Royal Haymarket (book tickets here) and Kelly has his fingers crossed that the play will
open elsewhere after that (“There are rumors,” he says). Catch it while you can
at the Royal Haymarket though, as the play-within-a-play feeling will be
heightened by the venue. Order drinks to be served in the gilt and crystal bar
between acts and eavesdrop on a little current London gossip while you sip your
gin and tonic. Foote would have approved.