A sympathetic look at the extraordinary life of an 18th century celebrity impressionist and female impersonator is provided by Richard Eyre's rumbustious production of Mr Foote's Other Leg (Theatre Royal Haymarket) which Ian Kelly has adapted for the stage from his award-winning biography.
In Georgian London, no one is more famous than Samuel Foote. Writer, actor, satirist and dangerous comedian, he has become the talk of the town and at a moment when the concept of selling personality was born. He even has the ear of the king. Adored by many, despised by some, Foote finds himself at the sharp end of attacks from the press … and a surgeon's knife when, following an accident, he has to have a leg amputated without anaesthetic. And in an age obsessed with fame, his colleagues from the worlds of science and the stage – from Benjamin Franklin to David Garrick – begin to wonder: does fame make you mad?
Foote specialised in transvestite roles in confrontational shows that sidestepped the stringent stage censorship of the times by being unscripted affairs, advertised as tea parties and such and could be considered the forerunner of today's cross-dressing comedians such as Eddie Izzard. He also managed to turn his disability into part of his satiric weaponry by drawing attention to it in plays such as The Lame Lover and in the groan inducing but still funny gags, "I am more than bit hacked off Mr Garrick, in fact, sir, I'm stumped!" and "I am ready to go out on a limb (on stage)!"
The play, which admittedly, is slow to get going, proves an utterly irresistible paean to the love, eccentricity and evanescence of the theatre itself and explains why insecurity and acclaim are two sides of the same coin and why pain is at the centre of the best comedy.
There can be no better actor to play Mr Foote than Simon Russell Beale who, in his tragi-hilarious element, gives a truly bravura performance as the protagonist, switching seamlessly from comedy to pathos, and there are haunting pre-echoes of the Oscar Wilde scenario in his refusal to go abroad when accused of sexual assault by his male servant. Strong support comes from Joseph Millson as the deferential, social climbing Garrick, Dervla Kirwan as an Irish stage actress, Forbes Masson as the celebrated surgeon who treated Foote, and Ian Kelly himself as Foote's patron, the Prince Regent.
In short, this piece manages to reclaim a forgotten figure and puts him centre stage again where he belongs and, thanks to the charisma of Russell Beale, he truly comes alive. Ironically, too, the Theatre Royal Haymarket was Foote's own theatrical home and whose royal patent he helped secure.
Mr Foote's Other Leg
Runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until Saturday 23 January 2016
Box office: 020 7930 800Last modified: April 7, 2021