Mr Foote’s Other Leg, transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from its original home at the Hampstead Theatre, was something of a curiosity. Part 18th century theatrical romp, part meditation on mortality, part satire on celebrity, its frequently shifting focus made it a somewhat slippery production to pin down.
And yet!! It did feature Simon Russell Beale camping it up wildly in a variety of extravagant frocks, with a resplendent bosom and knowingly flirtatious pout, like a well-endowed ship’s figurehead. So there were considerable compensations…
Ian Kelly’s play (based on his book) tells the real-life story of Samuel Foote (Russell Beale), actor, playwright, manager, cross dresser and irreverent thorn in the Establishment’s side.
At first, it’s all fun and games as Foote and his company (including Dervla Kirwan as the eloquently foul mouthed actress Peg Woffington, straddling the shadows between the world’s two oldest professions…) lark about staging Foote’s self-penned satires and cheeky versions of Shakespeare’s classics.
A bet with his more respected thespian contemporary, David Garrick (played by Joseph Millson with debonair pomposity), on how quickly he can ride a horse between the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, results in a horrific injury and Foote’s leg has to come off (a gruesomely vivid amputation scene, just before the interval, so audiences could soothe their frazzled nerves with a stiff drink afterwards. Well, that was my excuse anyway…)
Forbes Masson*, as the amputating Dr Hunter, provided a link between the seedy West End theatrical world and scenes of a more measured, scientific nature, as the 18th century Age of Enlightenment began to encroach upon Foote’s earthier, naughtier, more tolerant world.
Director Richard Eyre’s production, while it had fizz and fun in its bitchy, backstage scenes, lost momentum in the second half as Foote’s exuberance diminished. His disability, Peg’s long-concealed illness, and an increasingly conservative society unwilling to accommodate his flippant take on the world, resulted in Foote’s already fragile mind becoming increasingly unmoored, his instability affecting his friends and his standing in the “respectable” world.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that these dark aspects should have been omitted from the final piece altogether – light and shade are what excites me as a theatre-goer. I want to be surprised and wrong footed (pardon the unidexter pun) by imaginative productions that challenge my expectations.
However, “Mr Foote’s Other Leg” was not completely successful in its ambition to incorporate every single aspect of the multi-faceted Foote’s life and times, its broad scope compromising its impact as a theatrical piece.
I guess this is always the risk with a play based on a real-life person: what to leave in and what to leave out, yet still present an authentic version of the individual who inspired the original piece…
I have no answers (which is abundantly obvious). And I loved what Russell Beale and the cast did to bring saucy thespians, curious scientists and pompous royalty to life, but by trying to encompass so many themes, it felt like the overall production lacked impact.
Still, Simon Russell Beale’s bosoms… Fwooargh!
*Forever associated with underrated comedy gem “The High Life” which he performed and co-wrote with Alan Cumming…