Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Mr Foote's Other Leg

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Mr Foote's Other Leg

Article excerpt

Mr Foote's Other Leg

Hampstead Theatre, until 17 October

Jane Eyre

Lyttelton, in rep until 10 January 2016

Samuel Foote (1720-77) was a star of the 18th-century stage who avoided the censors by extemporising his performances. Today we'd call him a stand-up comedian specialising in improv. He served tea to play-goers and claimed that the show was a free accompaniment to the beverages. Dogged by homosexual scandals, he was hounded out of England at least once despite the patronage of George III. A riding accident left him with a compound leg fracture (bone piercing flesh), which required amputation to prevent gangrene. The limb was hacked off in 20 minutes. Foote hobbled back to fame and fortune playing Sir Luke Limp in The Lame Lover . At his burial the preserved limb was reunited with its owner.

This is the great comic biography the 18th century never gave us and the actor Ian Kelly, spotting an opportunity, has written a book on which this play is based. The show is half-brilliant. We meet Foote as a teenager taking acting lessons backstage from a leading star. (Actors earned pennies coaching hopefuls during breaks between performances.) His fellow pupil David Garrick first appears as a young bumpkin from Lichfield with Ozzy Osbourne vowels and he later becomes the darling of Drury Lane and acquires a cut-glass accent. Foote and Garrick form a partnership with Irish beauty Peg Woffington but they argue over scripts and genres. Foote loves unpretentious fun whereas Garrick is devoted to high art and virtuoso interpretations of Shakespeare. When Foote mounts a comic version of Garrick's acclaimed Othello the two thesps, both in costume, come to blows backstage. They wallop their blackened fists into their blackened faces while their curly wigs fly in all directions. The bout is watched in mock-terror by Foote's dresser, Frank Barber, a Jamaican.

Director Richard Eyre gives this jocular romp an atmosphere of frivolous but intelligent amusement that subtly flatters the audience. The actors clearly adore the material. Simon Russell Beale plays Foote as a twinkly desperado whose camp charm hides deep layers of jealousy and anger. Joseph Millson, a great if underrated comedian, suggests that Garrick was a bombastic peacock with an air of monumental pomposity. The writer Ian Kelly does a marvellous turn as the future George III. He begins as an amiably bumbling Prince of Wales who acquires an icy hauteur once he ascends the throne. …

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