There is still three weeks in which to see Mr Foote’s Other Leg at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket in London. Simon Russell Beale plays Mr Foote and does so magnificently. It’s on till 23 January. The play is by Ian Kelly.
Samuel Foote actually lived, and I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of him. One book I must now get is the award-winning account of his colourful life, in and out of the theatre, that Ian Kelly wrote before the play. It’s called Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, tragedy and murder in Georgian London, and is published by Picador.
Foote began his public life by writing a best-selling account of the murder of one of his uncles by another. He had an early failed marriage, was sent down from Oxford for (among other things) a bizarre practical joke at the expense of the Provost of his college, and became a flamboyant personality in London coffee house society. He was a comic actor, good at impersonation; a playwright, famed for his satire; and an impresario at the Haymarket Theatre itself, adept at evading the licensing and censorship law of the time. Another strange practical joke (at the hands of royalty) costs him his leg – and eventually, perhaps, his reason. A savage satire on a celebrity Duchess landed them both in court, her charged with bigamy and him with sodomy.
The other actors in the play are great too. The author of the play, Ian Kelly, plays Prince George (and then George III). Dervla Kirwan is the celebrated Irish actress Peg Woffington and Joseph Millson her lover the great actor David Garrick. Jenny Galloway plays Mrs Garner, the maid-of-all-work who has actually kept Foote’s theatre together for years: she has a great speech in which she lauds those who work backstage, as against the actors with their airs and graces. Micah Balfour plays Frank Barber, a freed slave from Jamaica who becomes Foote’s assistant, with much mutual puzzlement when Foote and Garrick are playing Othello.
There are many jokes (and insights?) to do with the world of the theatre. There is much Shakespearean stuff. There are comments on the role of the press (ostensibly in the 18th century, but also of today).
At first I thought they were speaking too quickly for me to catch it all but then either they slowed down or I caught up, and all became well.
If you go, here’s a tip: if you have time, before it starts read the timeline of Samuel Foote’s life in the programme. That will elucidate much of what’s happening (especially at the end).
You also learn from the programme that one reason why Samuel Foote’s plays are not performed nowadays is that he sometimes wrote them with leading roles for a one-legged actor, with subsequent casting difficulties …
We went as a New Year’s Eve treat. As has been our experience at the Haymarket before, our seats were upgraded. We had bought seats in the Upper Circle but found ourselves in seats with an excellent view in the Royal Circle. (Haymarket seats are not cheap!)
In the words of the programme, “The play – like the book – is a comedy about theatre folk that also offers a huge panorama of 18th-century life.”