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

The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The last Pinter play I saw was the star-studded Old Times as it neared the end of its critically-acclaimed run at the theatre named after him earlier this year. It was classic Pinter, all pregnant pauses, non-sequiturs, ambiguous relationships and more unanswered questions than the average episode of The Weakest Link.

In contrast, The Hothouse, the second of Jamie Lloyd’s productions for the Trafalgar Studios following his hugely successful, James McAvoy-starring Macbeth, is turbo-charged Pinter. Eyeliner-runningly funny, sharply satirical, whippet sharp and cleverly bonkers, it’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Noises Off with a dose of Orwell all brought together under Pinter’s young eye (this is An Early Pinter) and served up with a heavy dose of mega-watt acting. It’s at once an allegory of totalitarianism and a belly-aching farce. And every bit as brilliant as that sounds.

The play is set on Christmas Day in an unnamed institution that’s only ever referred to as a ‘rest home’, that coy description mocked by the occasional screeches and cries that rattle through the ancient pipes and walls. While it may be Christmas, there’s not much to celebrate here, there’s not a single holly-decked hall or stray bauble. The institution’s director, Mr Roote (Simon Russell Beale), doesn’t even know what day it is until his sycophantic, slimy underling Mr Gibbs (a wonderfully controlled and creepy John Simm) tells him. But Gibbs isn’t just on hand to guide his boss through the calendar (although at one point, that’s exactly what he does do), he’s there to inform Roote of two unexpected problems that have arisen within the peeling walls of the institution that Roote prides on running with military precision; one nameless numbered patient has died, while another has given birth to a baby boy. Little does Roote know that these two catastrophes will be one of the day’s highlights (cake aside).

The opening scene between Russell Beale and John Simm delivers a 100-watt jolt. The play races out of the starting block quicker than you can say “oh, that John Simm is shorter than he looks on the telly” (which, admittedly, is quite a long time). The physicality of SRB is amazing. He could reduce me to giggles with every bulging stare and incredulous gawp. Not that the others couldn’t match his brilliance, including Indira Varma as a pitch perfect parody of a femme fatale, Miss Cutts.

Instructed to root out the ‘rapist’ father of the baby, Gibbs turns out to be every bit as menacing as he seems, picking on the bumbling, naive new-boy Lamb who’s subjected to electroshock treatment so brilliantly acted by Henry Melling (Dudley in Harry Potter minus the puppy fat) that I was squirming in my seat, the intensity and horror sharpened by the comedy that had preceded it.

Simon Russell Beale is magnificent as Mr Roote, although he’s more cuddling that callous even when he’s beating the shit out of his impertinent subordinate Lush (deftly and charmingly played by John Heffernan). The comedy in The Hothouse is there as much to bring into sharp relief the horror of the place as it is to reduce the audience to giggly messes, but at times the eye-wateringly funny lines and the comedic delivery rather swamps the sinister message at the heart of it.

But it would be churlish to complain about a play being too funny. Pinter’s script is full of clever witty lines and Long’s production was not afraid to exploit the play’s physical comedy either. Even Russell Beale has said he took the part because he got to throw whisky in another character’s face, not once, but twice. And when you leave a theatre laughing (rather inappropriately) and are still on a theatrical high in Zone 2, you know he was right to.

The Hothouse is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 August 2013. For tickets and more information visit www.thehothousewestend.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Hollow Crown, BBC 2

ImageThere’s something truly special about Shakespeare’s The Globe, the Sam Wannamaker inspired theatre that sits like something from a model village on London’s South Bank, dwarfed by the modernist Tate next door.

Open to the elements, and London’s non-stop flight path, there’s no set, the costumes look like RSC cast-offs and the cast are (rarely) big Hollywood names. But within its circular walls, Shakespeare never sounds so alive, nor so relevant in these intimate surroundings. And the comedy, even in a blood soaked history like Henry V, always works so nicely as the actors play into the hands of the groundlings that stand transfixed in front of the stage . You do get a real sense of what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s day, with a (slightly) less stinky crowd and added helicopters.

The Globe’s Henry V season has just finished, picking off where it ended two years ago with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Henry V seems to be the big Shakespeare play of the year – Tom Hiddleston’s played the Prince turned King in BBC’s Hollow Crown series that ended this weekend while Jude Law (who was there doing some research the night I was there) is stepping into the breach later this year as part of a season of plays at Noel Coward Theatre.

At The Globe this season, Jamie Parker returned as the grown up Harry to lead the English army into battle under the shadow of Agincourt castle. It’s a stirring play that, as many commentators have noted, is particularly apt in this flag-waving year– but it has an emotional, almost moral, depth that both Parker and Hiddleston highlighted. Parker, perhaps wary of the big names who’ve gone before him took the bombastic element out of the big speeches. I quite liked this played down approach, and the BBC’s version took the same path with the ‘St Crispin Day’ speech, choosing to have Henry address an intimate crowd of Lords rather than the whole army. This more personal approach drew out the emotion, the horror of war, and highlighted the play’s Henry-as-a-normal-man theme that dragged the story out of history with a present day humanity.  But as good as the performances and staging were in The Hollow Crown, nothing quite beats watching Shakespeare under the stars with actors battling against the planes and elements.

by Suzanne Elliott