If I was allowed to host a dinner party and invite anyone from history, there is a fair chance that in there somewhere, squeezed between Shakespeare and George Best, would be the one-legged 18th Century actor-manager Samuel Foote. Or, more precisely, the one-legged 18th Century actor-manager Samuel Foote as portrayed by Simon Russell Beale in the Hampstead Theatre production of Ian Kelly’s new play Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which is enjoying a high-profile West End run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Why would I invite him? Well, aside from the intriguing historical insights into 18th Century London life (and the inevitable arguments with Julius Caesar across from him), Beale’s Foote would undoubtedly prove a witty, rambunctious, and thoroughly entertaining guest. His sizeable personage is stuffed full of self-effacing charm and his life story, or that presented in Kelly’s play at any rate, would surely provide him with anecdote after glorious anecdote. Who wouldn’t want him at the dinner table?
My Foote’s Other Leg roughly follows the events of Beale’s life, from his theatrical education alongside David Garrick (Joseph Millson) and Peg Wuffington (Dervla Kirwan), through his glory days as the celebrated actor-manager of his “little theatre on the Haymarket” – the very theatre in which the show is now being performed – through his descent into semi-madness as a result of the loss of his leg, to his eventual disgrace.
The majority of the action takes place in the dressing room (not literally, but in Tim Hatley’s delightfully busy dressing-room set), and Beale, Kelly, Eyre et al. manage to capture the frantic chaos behind the curtain well. There is an air of urgency about most scenes, an immediacy – brought on best by Beale’s energetic Foote – that only relents towards the very end.
Beale is excellent as the charismatic lead – a riot of pithy jokes and broad-grinned laughter. He captures the pathos of Foote’s later years remarkably well and has strong support from Millson and Kirwan throughout. Millson finds just the right amount of bluster and pomposity as the preening Garrick, Kirwan the perfect Irish cocktail of coarseness and tenderness. Elsewhere, writer Kelly is entertaining as a somewhat airheaded Prince George and Micah Balfour is endearing as Foote’s assistant Frank.
Kelly’s play, directed by Richard Eyre, is part biopic, part costume drama, and part riotous tragi-comedy. It even admits so on the posters: “an outrageous tale of comedy, tragedy and fame”. In short, it is a lot of things. And herein lies its fatal flaw.
It never seems to fully make-up its mind as to what effect it wants to achieve, what kind of play it wants to be. This is no issue in itself – the history of theatrical category-smashing is long, dating back to Shakespeare and Euripides – but when done so indecisively, it doesn’t allow the audience to engage, and that is an issue. There are moments of near-farcical slapstick, moments of high drama, and moments of (almost) tear-jerking pathos. It is never unentertaining, far from it, but it is perhaps not as memorable as it could be for lack of discernible intent.
Technically, it is superb. Visually, it is a joy. But theatrically, in the true sense of the word, Mr Foote’s Other Leg falls short.