Mr Foote's Other Leg (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
Ian Kelly's 'rambunctious, raucous ride of a play' transfers from Hampstead to the West End
Ian Kelly's Georgian comedy romp follows its critically acclaimed run at Hampstead Theatre with a very apt transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End. Apt because the Haymarket was where all the completely bonkers action actually happened, 250-odd years ago.
Simon Russell Beale plays the real-life Samuel Foote, a cross-dressing Georgian celebrity, actor and comedian who runs a playhouse in London. Foote's friendly rival David Garrick specialises in Shakespeare at his theatre over at Drury Lane, but Foote isn't as bothered about the Bard (he once staged Othello as a comedy), which means Garrick is trumping him in the success stakes. But Foote becomes the talk of the city after he loses a leg following an accident on a horse. Much to the shock of London's high society, it doesn't stop him from continuing to tread – or should that be hop – the boards.
Mr Foote's Other Leg is a rambunctious, raucous ride of a play, galloping through the history of the time with a twinkle in its eye. It's a love-letter to Eighteenth century London, with its loose values and love of theatre. London's ‘gutters of gin vomit' are evoked through the free-flowing profanities and the dirty dressing-room banter. But Kelly also imbues the script with a palpable atmosphere of change – scientific, social and political – seen in the characters' liberal attitudes to sex and the intriguing moments where the Benjamin Franklin and surgeon John Hunter turn up.
Kelly tells the tale of the little-known but larger-than-life character Foote with some poetic license. He also tells it with much wit, buoyed by a never-ending supply of leg puns. Russell Beale is magnificent as a slightly camp and often horribly misguided Foote, and, dressed in a series of enormous, busty dresses he's clearly having a whale of a time. Dervla Kirwan plays Peg Woffington – a notable actress of the time – and is an absolute delight as she stomps around, generally half-dressed and swearing like a trooper. Kelly's turn as Prince George is pretty funny too; he twitches away, in both a little uncomfortable and a little titillated by being backstage.
The humour gives way to horror in the central grisly amputation scene and from then on Foote and his chums begin to fall apart, with Foote descending into madness. Richard Eyre's production has remarkable designs from Tim Hatley which, though they feel a little cramped at their new home, effortlessly transform the stage from backstage, to onstage, to rooftop, to surgeon's lecture hall. Eyre taps into all the hysteria by making sure the tempo never lets up.
There's something thrilling about hearing lines referring to the Haymarket and realising that where you are sitting is pretty much where this all took place. Mr Foote's Other Leg is a fitting tribute to a extraordinary, under-sung character, but most of all it's a tribute to the theatre itself.
Mr Foote's Other Leg runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 23 January 2016.