Virtually every time I ask someone if they’ve heard about the new play Mr Foote’s Other Leg, most say: “Is that about Michael Foot?” Deep breath. No, it’s about the eighteenth century playwright, satirist, actor, theatre owner and impresario Samuel Foote. In his day, he was massive: one of the most famous men in London, the equal of Garrick. But the great news is that – largely thanks to historian Ian Kelly – Foote is emerging triumphant from the 21st Century shadows. First there was Kelly’s biography of 2012, then his play which has just ended its sold-out run at the Hampstead Theatre.
However, the biggest boost to the old Georgian trouper was the play’s transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Wednesday for a limited run as we reported recently. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for this was Foote’s own playhouse and the royal warrant was granted to him personally. Samuel Foote has come home.
But what about the play itself?
It is very funny. It has to be, because Foote himself was the funniest man in London. From the opening scene with Frank Barber and Mrs Garner rifling through John Hunter’s laboratory, the audience is roaring and this continues throughout. There are constant witty asides aimed at luminaries such as Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and in particular, Handel – celebrities one and all on the London scene. But this being Georgian London, Handel and Germans in general draw most of the fire, reflecting a casual xenophobia which today is practically illegal.
As a whole the play covers the trajectory of Foote’s professional life starting as new boy from Cornwall at Charles Macklin’s informal acting academy (a brilliant ensemble scene) through the toast of Georgian London to life-threatening accident, mental illness, scandal and ignominy. As the play progresses, so too does the comedy darken and the scenes become charged with sadness, not just for Foote, but those around him too. For his is loved. The transformation of mood is skillfully paced.
Kelly’s aforementioned book is deeply researched and scrupulously delivered. This is not an imperative with drama, so he takes liberties which don’t affect the gist of the story one bit but add much colour (literally in the case of Frank Barber who was Samuel Johnson’s black butler, not Foote’s) and help to keep the audience more closely connected. The surgeon John Hunter, though well enough acquainted with Foote, did not actually perform the amputation of the actor’s leg. Benjamin Franklin – resident in London for some sixteen years – didn’t loom large in Foote’s world, but here he is, talking frequently direct to the audience in a sort of chorus role (a neat touch is whenever Franklin is on stage we hear the eerie sound of the daft musical instrument he invented – the glass armonica). And so on.
All the perfomances are wonderful with special mentions to Jenny Galloway as Mrs Garner (hilarious) and Dervla Kirwan as Peg Woofington (hilarious and tragic, both). But what makes this play really tick is the outstanding performance of Simon Russell Beale. He looks just like Foote, he has taken possession of Foote and Foote in turn possesses him. He takes the funny bits, the poignant bits, the heartbreaking bits and makes them sing. Great, great acting.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg is written by Ian Kelly, directed by Richard Eyre and will run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for 12 weeks.
All images ©Nobby Clark.