Recently I took a trip to the stunning Theatre Royal, Haymarket to see Ian Kelly's rightly celebrated new play, Mr Foote's Other Leg. The theatre, which dates back to 1720, is breathtaking and the marvellous play proves more than a match for its surroundings!
Mr Foote's Other Leg takes as its central premise the life of actor-manager Samuel Foote, contemporary of Peg Woffington and David Garrick, the man who staged a comical take on Othello, strutted the stage in gowns that would shame a duchess, won and lost the favour of George III and took on the censors and (almost) won. Along the way he saw his beloved Haymarket become a Theatre Royal, was accused of sodomy and lost a leg in an ill-judged bet.
Foote's life, so torn between triumph and tragedy, proves perfect for the stage and it is hard to imagine an actor better suited to the role than Simon Russell Beale. In the first act he flies high, celebration and success at every turn as Kelly's own Prince George makes regular excursions backstage to visit the charming Peg (effervescently played by Dervla Kirwan) and Garrick (a suitable charming Joseph Millson), segueing from broad Brimingham vowels to a perfect leading man gravitas as Jenny Galloway and Micah Balfour keep things running smoothly backstage at the Haymarket.
There is a lot of humour in Kelly's play but tragedy too and the scene in which Forbes Masson, as John Hunter, narrates the amputation of Foote's ill-fated titular limb, is not for the faint of heart nor weak of constitution. Masson, capturing perfectly the pioneering spirit of Georgian medicine, handles the scene with all the élan of a carnival barker, pulling the audience into the grisly procedure in a scene that manages to show nothing yet, somehow, leave no stone unturned or bone unsawn.
Though Foote adopted a prosthetic limb made by the puppet makers of Covent Garden, the accident had a permanent impact on him and this play is by no means all comedy, with a touching seam of pathos emerging as the evening progresses towards its inevitable conclusion.
Tim Hatley's design production captures the era marvellously, conjuring the sinister surroundings of Hunter's collection of curiosities and the chaos of the Haymarket dressing room before taking us all the way to the roof of the theatre. Richard Eyre's direction, meanwhile, keeps the pace fairly bowling along in act one, slowing it just a little for the unfolding tale of act two. Slapstick comedy and bitter tragedy do not always make a happy mix yet Kelly and Eyre juggle the two masterfully in the service of this remarkable tale; at no point does one overwhelm the other.
This is a remarkable play about a singular man; it's a pleasure to welcome Samuel Foote back to the West End!
Mr Foote's Other Leg is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, until 23rd January 2016.