In 2012, Ian Kelly published a biography of Georgian actor Samuel Foote entitled Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Following the success of this book, he adapted it into a play, which is now showing at the Hampstead Theatre. After it was announced that Simon Russell Beale would be starring as Foote, tickets quickly sold out, so I was lucky to get one, even though I was rather more excited to be seeing Joseph Millson, an actor I’ve liked since I was a fifteen year old watching Peak Practice on a Tuesday night with my mam (I was not a particularly cool teenager).
Youthful reminiscences aside, the concept of a play about the theatre really appealed to me. It begins in unexpected fashion: years after Foote’s death, his former servant and stage hand break into the Hunterian Museum to try and steal his amputated leg, hoping to reunite it with the rest of his body. Cue plenty of laughs, and a humorous tone that lasts throughout the entire play, even when events take a darker turn.
We first meet Foote himself when, along with several other actors including David Garrick (Millson) and Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), he arrives for elocution lessons from Charles Macklin, shortly before the latter accidentally pokes another actor in the eye with his walking stick, leading to his death (yes, this actually happened). Despite this inauspicious beginning, the three remain friends over the next few decades, maintaining a level of mutual respect and love despite considerable artistic differences. We follow Foote as he becomes a hugely popular comic actor, getting round the censors by selling tickets to afternoon tea and offering the plays as an “extra”, and enjoying the patronage of Prince George (later George III) who is played to great effect by playwright Ian Kelly. Foote delights in the theatre as a joyous, ephemeral sort of place, a contrast to the serious and rather pompous Garrick. In one glorious scene, Garrick, horrified that Foote is about to play Othello as a comedy, chases him around the stage, the two of them in blackface and identical costumes, watched with growing bemusement by Foote’s Jamaican servant Frank (Micah Balfour).
After a riding accident, Foote’s leg is amputated in an aurally gruesome scene, each part of the unpleasant process being described by surgeon John Hunter and the other characters who are responsible, in the absence of pain relief, for holding Foote down. If you’re squeamish, you will need to stick your fingers in your ears, but the scene is undoubtedly effective. Following this, Foote becomes increasingly volatile, reckless in performance and causing rumours to be spread about his homosexuality.
As might be expected, Simon Russell Beale is excellent in the leading role, conveying his character’s comedic talents as well as his determination to crack on and make a career out of the loss of his leg. He is also superb in his character’s more vulnerable moments, as well as his sharpness and occasional cruelty. Dervla Kirwan is also excellent as Peg, her character’s humanity and warmth shining through. Joseph Millson is marvellous as David Garrick, pompous and severely lacking in a sense of humour, but loyal when it counts and appealing in his sincerity.
The richness of subject matter contained within a biography does make for a rather disjointed play: I struggled to work out the relevance of the Benjamin Franklin sections to the rest of the piece, for example. Having said that, although it is a very long play, it was never boring and the time flew by for me.
Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was one of the earliest stand-up comedians, enjoyed considerable fame in his day, secured the royal patent for the Theatre Royal Haymarket and had a rich and event-filled life. Yet he is a figure I hadn’t heard of until this play was announced. If this work can raise awareness of Foote’s incredible life, then it will have done its job; and while it isn’t perfect, it is gloriously entertaining.