Theatre Review: Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

A witty, engaging grease-paint smeared story of Georgian modern theatre that fizzes along with gusto

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Joseph Millson, Dervla Kirwan and Simon Russell Beale in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Transferring from the Hampstead Theatre to its rightful home – the Theatre Royal Haymarket plays a starring role – Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a rollicking zing of a play.

There are some pretty big theatre names in this production about a big theatre name. You may not actually know his name, but the titular Mr Foote is a man credited with changing the stage landscape, his influence still resounding in theatrical practice today.

Simon Russell Beale plays Samuel Foote in this Richard Eyre-directed production of Ian Kelly’s play. When we first meet Foote (after a quick posthumous trip to meet his long lost right leg), he’s at an elocution lesson, a budding actor on a mission to rid himself of his broad West Country accent to train his vowels for a life treading the broads (after his life changing incident, his Truro cadence mysteriously reappears).

In the first half, we follow Foote on his journey to being one of the biggest names in 18th century theatre, through the face-powder smeared dressing rooms, the bitching, the post-show highs and the rivalry with fellow thesp, David Garrick (Joseph Millson). He’s having a whale of a time – as are the audience, or me at least – mingling with Benjamin Franklin (nicely played by Colin Stinton) and getting the unseen 1700s crowd roaring in the aisles with his cross-dressing comedy routines (a shout out for the costumes, they’re wonderful in there petticoated abundance). But Foote’s fun comes to an abrupt end at the half way curtain when an unfortunate bet involving a spot of horse riding ends with Foote a leg down. 

Dr John Hunter, played exuberantly by Forbes Masson, saves Mr Foote’s life – and his leg, the play begins with Mrs Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale) and Frank Barber (Micah Balfour) attempting to steal it back from the doc’s basement. But Foote is never quite the same again, his eccentricity slipping more and more into bad judgement and self-sabotage. The second half is less frantic, more moving and bittersweet, Foote’s love of the spotlight illuminating his less palatable quirks and landing him on the wrong side of a powerful socialite. 

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a richly comic play that fizzes along with intelligence, wit and charm. Occasionally it gets a little tangled in its own cleverness, but for the most part, the story is gripping and hugely entertaining. SRB is, as usual, an impressive acting powerhouse as Foote – mischievous, camp, haughty and endearing, he wraps his tongue around Kelly’s sometimes odd prose rhythm with an assurance that only someone so at ease with theatrical linguistics as Russell Beale could.

Simon Russell Beale may dazzle, but the rest of cast don’t wilt in his bright light. Dervla Kirwan as his acting partner Peg Woffington gives a lovely understated performance that has wit and charm, and later, sadness. Bleasdale as the Mistress Quickly-alike Chudleigh injects the part with zeal, while Balfour offers a nice sobering presence among all the dramatics. Playwright Ian Kelly (Hermione Granger’s father no less) makes an imposing appearance as George III (before the madness set in, in fact he’s often the sanest person on stage).

Kelly’s play owes something to the bawdiness and calamity-strewn themes of restoration comedy, but there’s also touches of Shakespeare. There is a good dose of theatrical in-jokes, a recurring seam involving the Georgian revival of Shakespeare and the birth of the Stratford-upon-Avon plastic skull cash-in is funnier than that sentence sounds. But Mr Foote’s Other Leg goes deeper than clever-clever English-grad pleasing moments, it’s touching, funny, warm and richly entertaining. Not to mention a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone with an interest in theatre.

Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until January 23rd 2016

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Theatre Review: The Miniaturists 54 10th Birthday, Arcola Theatre

Mini plays with big ideas, The Miniaturists 54’s Birthday Bash celebrated the written word with imagination 

Checkout by Poppy Corbett, Photographer credit - Claudia Marinaro.jpg

Checkout by Poppy Corbett. Photograph by Claudia Marinaro

Great things come in small packages so they say, and, as with the haiku, the short story and sonnets, creating constraints in art can encourage creativity where too much space can stifle it. It makes sense, then, that plays as long as scenes allow the writing to shine unencumbered by conventional narrator arcs or structure.

The short form play is something new to me, but not to The Miniaturists 54 who have been bringing the best in condensed script writing to the stage for the past decade. The Miniaturists 54 celebrated their 10th anniversary at Dalston’s theatrical gem The Arcola with five original short-form plays from burgeoning young writers and some older(er) hands – established playwright Owen McCafferty wrote the fourth of the evening’s pieces, Damage.

Curated by writers Declan Feenan and Will Bourdilon, the Miniaturists focus on the writer who are also heavily involved with the production of their script, including choosing the director. That’s not to say the acting is sidelined, many of the performances on this 10th anniversary show were every bit as committed and punchy as they would be in a longer production.

The plays are linked by a theme of life, death, renewal and displacement. The evening began with Twins by James Fritz, which saw an elder woman (Phyllis McMahon) reminiscing about her life as she flicks through a photograph album. We learn at the beginning that the woman lost her twin just before she was born, a name-less ghost that haunts her through her life that is counted down in scientific terms by her shadow (Simona Bitmate).

This is followed by If We Got some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You, an Irish-set two-hander where two young men, having stolen £500 from a step-dad, hide out on the roof of his house, precariously close to the edge of both the ledge and the truth of their feelings for each other. The first half closes with the wonderfully imaginative Checkout where St Peter’s Gate is reconsidered as a supermarket. If you’re lucky you get a ‘bag for life’ that takes you back down to earth and a second chance. It was a funny, quirky piece that closed out the first half in style.

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O'Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O’Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

The aforementioned Damage is another two-hander, this time an elderly couple played by Karl Johnson and Sue Porrett, squabble and row seemingly harmlessly, until the end brings a rawer, darker feel.

It’s a shame then that the evening rather stumbles with the baggy Kampala that takes the vast theme of Uganda’s independence and the rise and fall of Idi Amin and attempts to condense it into three short scenes seen through the eyes of a group of students. The set-up felt unfocused and confusing despite some committed performances.

This final piece, while ambitious, proved that short form play writing is an art form in itself and not every subject is ripe for its condensed structure. These series of one-offs seem to work best when they’re not telling a story so much as an idea, revelling in the joy of the written word and the creativity a 20-minute slot unleashes. 

The Miniaturists

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Theatre Royal, Bath

An on-fire performance of Simon Stephens’ adaptation of this absorbing, bittersweet and alluring story

Joshua Jenkins and Stuart Laing in The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

Joshua Jenkins and Stuart Laing in The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

The short run time of productions, money and the sheer wealth of theatre on offer, mean that I rarely see plays twice. Even different productions of classics have me thinking twice – do I need to see Henry V again? (maybe this time the English loose?). But Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s wonderful book, would stand up to countless viewings. I saw it for the first time at the poor crumbling Apollo a couple of years ago, before the show literally brought the roof down and again recently, this time with the touring company at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

The show dazzled as much the second time around. We all know Christopher Boone’s story, or we think we do. The tale of the 15-year-old’s mission to find out who killed Wellington, his next door neighbour Mrs Shears’, dog, has broken free of the confines of the page and taken on a cultural life of its own like Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. We know Curious Incident is funny and that Christopher is charming, but his innocence tricks you into thinking that this is a fluffy tale of a young boy playing detective. But both times I’ve seen the production I have been taken aback by the sadness that seeps through it, the heartbreak of a family’s struggle to hold themselves together in a world that doesn’t like difference and where individuality is drowned out by the conventional.

That said it is still very funny, the juxtaposition of Christopher’s childlike voice with his super maths brain, his occasional pomposity and his sharp tongue throw-up some belly laugh comic moments. There is also some lovely interaction between Christopher and another neighbour the Swindon Town-supporting, trainer wearing Mrs Alexander whose west country accent, Steve Jobs style sneaks and affection for Christopher was visual amusing and emotionally touching.

Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher like he was born for the role, totally convincing despite being 12 years older than the character. It’s a demanding part and one that has to strike a balance between comedic, empathetic and sympathetic without being twee and patronising, but Jenkins managed the acting tightrope with no wobbles. He was supported by terrific cast. I particularly liked Siobhan played by Geraldine Alexander as Christopher’s kindly teacher and the production’s narrator. I also enjoyed Roberta Kerr as Mrs Alexander.

But challenging all the actors for our attentions is the fantastic set that as much a part of the storytelling as the script and the acting. Bunny Christie’s design is a visual aid to the inner workings of Christopher’s mathematically rich mind that is so smoothly integrated into the story that you also almost don’t notice its cleverness.

Curious Incident is joyous, funny, touching dramatic and gripping first, second – and, I’m willing to bet, even third – time around.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | Touring until 21 November 2015

Gielgud Theatre, London | Until forever possibly