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

Theatre Review: The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham's Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir is one of those plays that’s about nothing and everything. It’s a gentle, funny play for the most part, with a plot that revolves around five people getting pissed in a down-at-heel pub in an unnamed, remote part of Ireland, livening their whiskey soaked evening with ghost stories.

But Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s script delves into the human heart and extracts a play that’s moving, funny and tender. Billed as a ghost story, The Weir isn’t a spine tingling scarathon in the vein of Woman in Black; The Weir’s ghosts are far more human.

It’s a wet, blustery night (both, as it happens, inside and outside the theatre) and local bachelors Jack (Brian Cox) and Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) have taken refuge in their local with barman Brendan in his shabby – in a decidedly un-chic way – pub. They are joined by married regular, the flashy in a small town way Finbar (Risteárd Cooper)  and Veronica (Dervla Kirwan)  a young woman who’s recently moved from Dublin to this part of the world searching for a bit of peace.

She doesn’t get much on this particular night as the four men, in a bid to impress the attractive blow-in, start narrating their personal ghost stories with verbocious Jack as the eloquent ringleader.  But amongst these stories of ghouls and spirits, the most haunting tale of them all is all too real.

The Weir is engaging and funny and filled with sadness and regrets that overflow like Valerie’s pint of wine. The cast are all fantastic; Brian Cox’s Jack shifts effortlessly from Guinness-fuelled show-off to reveal a man scarred by heartbreak and regret. Dervla Kirwan is quietly and then devastatingly brilliant as the lone woman with a past so shatteringly sad that the men – and the audience, or this audience member at least – are stopped in their tracks.

The Weir may not spook you, but it will haunt you in other – more affecting – ways.

by Suzanne Elliott