The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2015; Haymarket Theatre 2015-2016
This new play by Ian Kelly, based on his earlier biography of the 18th century actor Samuel Foote, starts out as a light comedy but then attempts to go deeper in characterisations and darker in tone, losing its way in the process.
Samuel Foote, contemporary and friendly rival of David Garrick, specialised in self-written satiric comedies and drag roles that we would now recognise as Panto Dames. An accident midway through his career forced the amputation of one leg, and he proceeded to write a string of successful comedies featuring a one-legged character.
Kelly's play opens with future stars Garrick, Foote and Peg Woffington as stagestruck beginners and carries on through entertaining scenes of backstage banter, bitchery and complaints about the deadness or absence of audiences.
The actor-characters and the friendly prince who will become George III are gently satirised, and Kelly even manages an excellent punchline to the amputation scene.
But then things start to get more self-consciously meaningful, and both the comedy and the theatrical life wane.
Foote's legal problems – he satirised a powerful court lady, who then caused a lot of trouble for him – push the dialogue into serious talk of censorship and artistic freedom, which the playwright unconvincingly tries to parallel with the American Revolution.
Benjamin Franklin is dragged into the play, not as statesman or diplomat, but as amateur scientist, in a thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to make some connection between science and theatre in the Age of Enlightenment.
Foote's physical suffering has an understandable effect on his earlier high spirits, and as he and his friends age, the comedy itself fades away.
Director Richard Eyre doesn't seem to have noticed these problems, or to consider them problems, since, for example, he repeatedly allows the play to stop dead for the boring and seemingly irrelevant Ben Franklin sequences.
If any actor could be able to navigate the play's shifts in tone and focus it should be Simon Russell Beale, and he certainly finds all the arch humour in the early comic scenes. But even he seems lost in the second half, unsure how to play a character who has so little in common with what he was like earlier.
The rest of the cast – Joseph Millson as Garrick, Dervla Kirwan as Woffington, Micah Balfour as Foote's loyal dresser, Jenny Galloway as his stage manager and general dogsbody, Colin Stinton as Franklin and the playwright himself as King George – are generally happiest when playing the light comedy and generally look ill at ease when things turn serious.
I would never, ever recommend that anyone leave a play at the interval. But all the good stuff in this play is in the first act.
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Review - Mr Foote's Other Leg - Hampstead Theatre 2015