There is no stopping Simon Russell Beale.
After delivering a sensitive, subtle performance earlier this year in the Donmar's TEMPLE, Beale is now firing on all cylinders and giving a larger-than-life performance at the Hampstead Theatre in actor/playwright Ian Kelly's MR. FOOTE'S OTHER LEG, based on his biography of the Georgian actor and comedian Samuel Foote.
Ian Kelly has resurrected Samuel Foote from the historical shadows and what a dazzling personality he was. As David Garrick was re-inventing the dramatic theatre to a more naturalistic style of performance and production, Samuel Foote was establishing himself as a gifted comedic actor who subversively flouted the censorship laws by staging his productions in the early evening and calling them "tea parties". His productions were filled with sly satires on public figures and in what must have been a glorious moment in theatre, he appeared as Othello in a production that played as a comedy - now THAT I would liked to have seen!
For such a savage satiric player as Foote, it was remarkable that he became a friend of both the future George III when he was Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York. Indeed it was the Duke of York who was instrumental in the first major crisis in Foote's life. Attending a royal house party, Foote accepted a wager to race the Duke's horse which ended in disaster when he was thrown from the horse resulting in his left leg being crushed and an immediate amputation.
Astonishingly Samuel Foote was back on stage within months of the accident and retained his popularity in roles which were written to feature his disability. However, what was undiagnosed at his accident was a head trauma which led to spells of troubling personality disorders. He parlayed the Royals' guilt in his accident by getting them to grant a Royal charter for his theatre, the Theatre Royal Haymarket. One wonders whether his brain injury may have led him to his second disaster? He wrote a play satirising the Duchess of Kingston who had been involved in a salacious divorce case and she retaliated by seeking out reports from former-employees of his that he had made homosexual advances to them.
The following year the Duchess was tried for bigamy and Foote could not resist staging his play again just as the press reported another allegation of sodomy against him. Foot's luck ran out and he was sent to trial, although he was released on a technicality, with the King's veiled assistance in asking Foote to stage a Command Performance. It says a lot for Foote's bravery that he still faced an audience at the Haymarket even while he was being traduced in the papers. The trial robbed him of his career and his health and he died the following year in Dover, waiting for a boat to take him to exile in France. He was 57 and had lived life to the brim.
Kelly's play could be accused of trying to cram too much in and the play sometimes wanders off to show Foote's connections with the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin who was a keen London theatregoer and his friend surgeon John Hunter who explored the subject of neuro-science. Where Kelly excels is in the backstage world of the 18th Century West End with actors bitching about each other, the helter-skelter staging of productions and the glowering indifference of the grumpy stage manager.
Ian Kelly has also written himself a tasty supporting part of the Prince of Wales and very funny he is too as the foppish twit destined to become George III who of course had his own flirtations with mental instability. There are also excellent supporting performances from the always-dependable Jenny Galloway as the dyspeptic stage manager, Micah Balfour as Foote's black servant Frank and Joseph Millson is very effective as David Garrick, changing from a thick-tongued northern theatrical newcomer to a pompous Shakespearean star actor who nevertheless can forgive Foote his excesses.
First seen as a heavily-brogued Irish ingenue, Dervla Kerwin gives a delightful performance as the 18th Century actress Peg Woffington, who worked often with both Foote and Garrick and was the latter's mistress for a while. She suggests the star quality that Woffington must have had which made her adept at both comedy and drama, and equally switches from being a brassy and hard-living actress to the reflective woman who learns she has cancer. It's the best performance I have seen Kerwin give.
Richard Eyre's direction elicits these fine performance and his delight in the theatrical material is palpable. He has found his perfect leading man in Simon Russell Beale who brings Samuel Foote to such vivid life. It's remarkable how each new portrayal one sees of his show an even deeper versatility from this actor who should be even more feted than he is. He truly is the successor to Ralph Richardson, an actor who can play a wide-ranging array of characters - both dramatic, tragic or comical - but always retain a real humanity.
He is given ample opportunity to show all these sides as Samuel Foote and creates such a warm, likable, 'human' personality that it is a relief that Kelly ends the play with Foote down - threatened with public humiliation - but not out - his bravery in going out onstage before his audience. Whether as the eager new actor, the bitchy star of his own comedies, writhing in agony as he is operated on, flying into frightening rages or begging for affection, Beale is never less than stunning.
Eyre has reunited his design team from GHOSTS and again they deliver: Peter Mumford's lighting is fluid and evocative while Tim Hatley's set and costumes are a constant delight. The Hampstead Theatre run sold out very quickly and the very exciting news is that MR FOOTE'S OTHER LEG will transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 28th October to 23rd January. Somewhere there will be a one-legged ghost very happy although the current Haymarket theatre building is to the right of where Foote's Haymarket stood. Either way, run - or hop - to see it!