Wednesday, January 27, 2016


at the Theatre Royal Haymarket


Last bow for Samuel Foote, and his biographer Ian Kelly, at the Haymarket. The final performance of this Hampstead transfer, almost 240 years since the real Foote walked out of the stage door of his Theatre Royal and into obscurity.
The play tells the crazy but [largely] true story of a born entertainer, stand-up, impressionist, true crime author, impresario, debtor, cross-dresser and friend of the great and the good.
The foul-mouthed backstage banter is amusingly re-created, with much to learn about the evolution of stage performance. Macklin and Garrick play leading roles, Peg Woffington – the first Polly Peachum – is wonderfully done by Dervla Kirwan. And of course we see Foote himself, in a splendid recreation by Simon Russell Beale. Outrageous en travesti, of course, but also vulnerable, both at the moment of his final defeat, and in the excruciating amputation that ends Act One. Wit aplenty, but clever references to the Bard – then, thanks largely to Garrick, undergoing a resurgence. George III gets his Prince Hal moment at the end. Madness recalls Lear, especially in the storm near the end. Jenny Galloway's grumpy, bawdy stage manager, has some Dresser-style reflections on being “the wife in the wings”, scrubbing gussets and making a career out of the worst bits of marriage ...
But this is not just a back-stage drama. We begin in “the charnel house of horrors” - anatomical specimens. And there's politics and philosophy, psychology and medecine. Benjamin Franklin speaks of the mind/brain problem; Foote suffers Locke's phantom limb, and loses his inhibitions after the accident – caused by a foolish royal wager – which also cost him his left leg, and opened up a whole new theatrical genre.
This is a very funny slice of history – directed with a sure hand but a light touch by Richard Eyre, no less. With wonderful designs by Tim Hatley, and beautifully judged performances by a brilliant ensemble. Joseph Millson is a superb David Garrick, and Kelly himself plays an impressive Prince George, later George III – what! What!. And there's a lot to think about, too – sending us to the book, also by Kelly, which preceded the play. But I wish I'd seen it in Hampstead first. Because, marvellous though it was to see Foote back in the Haymarket, though not on his own stage, the production did sometimes struggle to fill Nash's vast auditorium.

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