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: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre is 90 galloping minutes of incest, STDs, adultery, fire and death punctuated by some unexpected black humour (although don’t go expecting knock-knock jokes).  

Stranded on a blustery island in the middle of nowhere (although, my guess would be somewhere in the North Sea), Helene Alving  has a past that she’d very much like to forget. The past, however, isn’t quite so keen to let go of her, and its ghosts rattle around the empty rooms of Helene’s gloomy house, haunting her unhappy present.

After years of suffering and deceit, Helene hopes to exorcise her demons by revealing the brutal truth about her late husband to their son, Oswald who’s back home after living it up as an artist in bohemian Paris.

This being an Ibsen play, Helene’s idea to erase the past with some good old fashioned truth-telling goes awry as soon as the theatre lights dim. The dirt gets raked up before I’ve barely taken a sip of my wine by bossy boots Pastor Manders (Will Keen) who manages to bully the strong, yet fragile Helene (an amazing Lesley Manville) into revealing some of the murkier bits of her past. Accompanying this showdown is the pattering of rain that provides the perfect glum soundtrack  as Helene spills her demons much to the astonishment of the thought-he-knew-it-all Pastor . We learn, before they do, Oswald and Regina the maid (Charlene McKenna), who are making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, have a little more in common than an interest in French.

And then Oswald (Jack Lowden), a great hunky slice of Scandinavian blondness who looks like he could take all the slings and arrows of outrageous Norwegian misfortune, falls foul of syphilis, an inherited gift from his drunk, womanising father (thanks dad!). A particularly nasty sort of ghost.

The 90 minutes of gut-wrenching theatre plays out on largely dimly lit stage, the soft patter of rain setting the rhythm of the play. By the end, everyone and everything is in ruins, expect the man that Regina believes to be her father, Jacob Engstrand, who at least has his Home For Seamen (for now). Poor Lesley Manville looked traumatised as she look her well deserved bow.

The ghosts are all metaphysical, but Tim Hatley’s clever stage design separates the front of the stage from the back with a sheer screen, showing the characters in phantom  form when they’re not ‘in action’.

Back in staid old Victorian England (and even Norway may have been a little bit uptight in the 18th century) the themes in Ghosts (sex, syphilis and sibling flirting) would have had audiences reaching for the smelling salts. The play’s shocks are different for a modern audiences, but it stills leaves you reeling – the brutality of life, the powerlessness of the wife, the deception, the betrayal – I needed more than just that glass of wine afterwards.  But for all its doom, gloom and emotional brutality, Richard Eyre’s Ghosts is an engrossing and massively enjoyable hour and a half of heart-wringing theatre that will play in your head and heart for weeks to come.

by Suzanne Elliott