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: Taken at Midnight, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

About to end its all too brief stint at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Taken at Midnight is a gripping thought-provoking production that is as enthralling as it is moving.

Set in 1930s Germany, Mark Hayhurst‘s new play tells the true story of Hans Litten, the man who had the courage (arrogance?) to reduce Hitler to size in the witness stand at the trial of SA men in 1931. Hitler’s anger and subsequent revenge comes from him being cut down to human size by Litten; Hitler wanted to be a deity, above reproach or mistake, but that day Litten exposed his humanness and for that the lawyer pays a heavy price.

But hope is not entirely lost, Litten has a vocal cheerleader in the world outside of his concentration camps. His mother, Irmgard, beautifully played by Penelope Wilton, pushes her way into the office of Gestapo chief Dr Conrad to campaign for her son’s release. Soon her visits are frequent, the pair of them enjoying cups of tea as Irmgard’s increasingly angry pleas get bolder.

Taken at Midnight is full of emotion without being mawkish, intelligent without being aloof, Hayhurst’s script is a highlight in a play full of them. I seen several plays recently where words are seemingly thrown out in the vain hope that they will magically slot together and make sense and it was wonderful to hear Hayhurst’s thoughtful, clever script. The play is riveting with an easy rhythm that allows the actors to tell the story without melodrama. That’s not to say emotions are subdued, if anything Taken at Midnight is more intense because it’s not all hysterical hand-wringing.

Competing in the ‘best of…’ category is Penelope Wilton (this week nominated for best actress at the Olivier Awards), whose Irmgard is, in contrast to the turmoil of the story, so stoical and still, her fists clenched beside her body, her jawline holding her anguish. She’s brilliant in the role, beautifully composed, but her determination and courage are never in doubt.

Wilton’s not alone, the whole cast are excellent; Martin Hutson is charming as Hans Litten, capturing his brilliance and the arrogance that accompanied it, while John Light as Dr Conrad reimagines the Gestapo chief as an ordinary man, playing him as a human being not a cardboard cutout, goosestepping monster.

Stories set in Nazi Germany, particularly those that tell true stories of individuals suffering in concentration camps can be relentlessly grim, but Taken at Midnight, while it won’t have you rolling in the aisles, has genuine moments of humour. Wilton, who honed her comic timing in Ever Decreasing Circles, a sitcom I was semi-obsessed with in my childhood (Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers!), puts it to excellent use here. She’s not playing for laughs, but the amusing lines help make this story even more human.

Jonathan Church’s subtle direction enhances the horror of the final few minutes of Taken by Midnight – there were gasps from the audience at the events before curtain call, no mean feat for a true story.

by Suzanne Elliott

Taken at Midnight | Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until Saturday 14 March 2015