In 2012, the actor and biographer Ian Kelly published a brilliant account of the life of the now-forgotten 18th century thespian and comedian Samuel Foote, Mr Foote’s Other Leg. It enjoyed glowing reviews (including one from yours truly), deservedly won the 2013 Theatre Book Of The Year award, and sold in handsome quantities.
In most circumstances, that would be the end of the story. However, it has now enjoyed a rather wonderful sequel. Kelly has adapted the book into a new play, directed by Richard Eyre and starring none other than the great Simon Russell Beale as Foote.
Currently enjoying a sold-out and regrettably brief season at the Hampstead Theatre, one hopes that it will be transferring to a larger venue for a longer run to allow audiences more of a chance to see this hugely accomplished play.
Adapting Foote’s complex, bizarre life story (which included his being the writer of the first true-life crime saga, in which one of his uncles murdered another) posed a considerable challenge, and so Kelly came up with the ingenious idea of partially fictionalising the events, setting most of it backstage at various theatres (dramatic and surgical) and liberally sprinkling it with excellent jokes, and knowingly groanworthy puns. (Although I missed my favourite line from the book when the one-legged Foote, accused of sexual assault, quips ‘Sodomy? I’ll not stand for it!’) Real-life characters dominate the drama, including the Irish actress Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), the hilariously vain proto-Shakespearean David Garrick (Joseph Millson) and none other than Prince George (Kelly himself, in a wonderfully sly, faintly in-jokey performance).
The first half, dealing with the rivalry between Garrick and Foote and the life of the 18th century theatre, is splendidly entertaining, with brilliantly farcical sequences; my only regret is that we don’t see the promised version of Othello: The Comedy, with Foote absurdly donning blackface. After a horrific accident results in him having his leg amputated (in a scene no less ghastly for being narrated rather than shown), Foote suffers from severe mental disorders and so the second half, while still gripping and revealing, is necessarily more sombre and disturbing. Eyre’s production, brilliantly designed by Tim Hatley, proceeds at a steady pace, teasing out all the intricacies of character and situation that his work is synonymous with. This is a Rolls-Royce calibre staging of the play.
One can nitpick if one wishes. Perhaps some of the historical details are slightly obscure if you haven’t read Kelly’s biography, especially the events that led to Foote’s downfall, and I would quibble about the inclusion of Benjamin Franklin as a character; not that there’s anything wrong with Colin Stinton’s enjoyable performance, but it’s a complication too many in a play that has several of them already. But these are minor quibbles.
Anchored, as ever, by a pitch-perfect Russell Beale, moving from drag comedy worthy of the broadest pantomime to devastating anguish that openly nods to King Lear, I will go out on a limb and suggest that you run (or hop) up to Hampstead to try and get tickets, or alternatively pray that a one-legged comedian soon finds his ideal home. The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where Foote performed many of his celebrated roles, would seem nothing less than a suitable fit.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 17th October 2015. For more information, visit www.hampsteadtheatre.com.