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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MR FOOTE'S OTHER LEG
at Haymarket Theatre

AN ODDBALL CAREER
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Dervla Kirwan, Forbes Masson, Joseph Millson, Sophie Bleasdale and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Oh, the cruelty of time! One of the most famous celebrities of the mid-18th century – but virtually unknown today – was a versatile, engagingly flamboyant, notoriety-seeking theatrical jack-of-all-trades called Samuel Foote. A cross-dresser and, arguably, the man who invented improv and stand-up comedy, he even found favour with King George III, who secured for him the patent of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where one of his outrageous follies was to stage Shakespeare’s Othello as a comedy to rival that of David Garrick’s famous Drury Lane performance.
 
Indeed, such was Foote’s celebrity that a sodomy accusation by his coachman in 1776 resulted in a scandal and trial that garnered more publicity in the London press than America’s Declaration of Independence. After a serious riding accident 10 years earlier, which necessitated the amputation of his left leg, Foote, far from retiring from the theatre, successfully traded on his disability by writing plays whose titles included The Lame Lover and The Devil upon Two Sticks. Relying on a prosthetic replacement made of cork, he endured a great deal of discomfort and suffering as he continued to advance his reputation as a mimic and comedian, as well as managing to avoid the stringent censorship laws of the time by giving unscripted performances he called “tea parties.”
 
Adapted from his prize-winning 2012 biography felicitously titled "Mr. Foote’s Other Leg," Ian Kelly, who is also an accomplished actor, has now dramatised Foote’s multi-faceted, decidedly oddball career into an eccentric comedy with serious overtones in which the author himself appears in the minor role of Charles III.
 
Topping the bill, though, is Simon Russell Beale as the eponymous hero whose performance ticks several of the same boxes it did when he played the showy role of Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade.
 
Apart from an unfortunate tendency to gabble chunks of the dialogue, Russell Beale expertly melds outrageous comedy (especially in the first act) with the dreadful pain and suffering (both physical and spiritual) that followed his amputation.
 
Is there any other actor who expresses more effectively self-pity and self-derision than Russell Beale? And while his trademark mannerisms and vocal inflections are all very much on parade here, it’s a bravura performance just the same.
 
There’s good work, too, from Joseph Millson as David Garrick, the greatest actor of his generation, and from Dervla Kirwin as the feisty actress Peg Woffington, a popular favourite with 18th-century theatregoers and probably Foote’s closest friend.
 
As for the play itself, it’s an entertaining mish-mash that juggles fact with fiction and over-eggs the dish by incorporating unnecessary characters such as Benjamin Franklin and his theories on electric fluidity. It also skirts around complex issues such as sexual liberation and racism, and while the theatrical luvvie speak, the constant unflattering references to the popularity of Handel, revue-sketch type jokes, anachronisms and foot-related puns certainly generate laughs, as does the sight of Russell Beale in black-face dressed as Othello. Kelly, you can’t help feeling, is trying to pour a pint into a half-pint bottle.
 
Despite being directed with a flourish by Richard Eyre, who exuberantly excavates the sheer theatricality of the piece, the question is, has it enough appeal for anyone other than dyed-in-the-wool theatregoers in thrall to the performing arts? Where the general public is concerned, I doubt very much whether it has a leg to stand on.

 


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