Review – Ben Hur – Tricycle Theater

November 24, 2015 by

The genius of The Thirty-Nine Steps (the play) was that it took a sweeping story and managed to turn it into a rip-roaring comedy, all performed on a nearly empty set by a cast of four playing a cast of about fifty. I loved this show and would constantly take visitors to see it with me during its long West End run; the jokes held up well and the mugging of the cast never failed to crack me up. It was also, I believed, an excellent example of “less is more” theater, the kind of stuff that assumes the audience has imagination and is willing – nay, eager – to be taken on a trip to fantasyland. So when I heard the same creative team was taking on Ben Hur, and that it was going to be getting a run at the Tricyle (which is just a bit smaller than the Criterion), I was pretty darned excited – so excited I got a ticket for first preview, because some good things can’t wait.

Again, we’ve got a big story – bigger, even, than The Thirty-Nine Steps (it does include a sea battle and a chariot race) – and very, very few actors. We were given a clue as to how the night would progress at the beginning, when the “writer” (John Hopkins – also Ben Hur) came out to introduce his show … and his costar (the stunningly multi-roled Alix Dunmore). Here, clearly, was a person (the writer) with many, many problems, and the victim(/love interest) of some of his problems – and we, the audience, were going to watch his ego and their relationship play out on stage. This bit of farce was an extra dimension to the evening’s affairs – and what fun!

A lot of the joy in watching this show is not just in the silly jokes and bad puns but in the visual humor, and to that extent it seems like a lot of the fun would be taken away from you if I said how they took care of things like the sea battles and the chariot races. I think, though, I’m safe in saying that AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION DOES OCCUR and it really heightens the moment. I made my theatrical debut that night … lines and everything!

Just when you think the jokes have been played out, the second act manages to raise things to a whole new level and the laughing starting coming out thick and heavy. Earlier, though, I felt things were a bit layered on and didn’t feel natural – but I’m willing to ascribe this to having seen it in the very early days. These people know what they’re doing and could wring laughter out of a cabinet member from the Kremlin. I’m more than willing to believe things have tightened up and will continue to become shinier throughout the run.

That said, I believe this show just isn’t going to be up there with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I blame the source material. A book that was ultimately written as a kind of a sideline to telling the story of Jesus for me has a bit of the humor wrung out of it at the start, and while we can have a laugh here and there at the religious schtick shoved in (as much to sell the original, I believe, as anything else), I found these elements just not nearly as comic as they needed to be to bring me along. In fact, the whole thing would have been a lot better if the Jesus bits were cut out as the comedy failed during these moments. Still, the actors were very good, and it will be tighter, and, in days like these, don’t we all need a good laugh, not to mention lawn-mower powered chariots?

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, November 19th, 2015. It continues through January 9th and is really a great alternative to panto.)

Review – The Father – Tricycle Theatre at Wyndham’s, London

November 17, 2015 by

I didn’t catch The Father when it was at the Tricycle, so I completely missed any hype about it – best new French play of 2014 – but I did see some nice things said about it once it made it to Wyndhams. One of the things I found appealing was a 90 minute running time – ideal for after work – and, as it turns out, rather affordable seats (my back of stalls jobs were £35 and clearly cheaper can be had as the upper sections of the house were closed off when I went).

So …. we have a father (Kenneth Cranham) and his daughter, Anne (Claire Skinner), and dad is obviously a bit unwell as Anne’s need to have a carer around. Dad’s been fighting with the carer – she’s a thief! Or, actually, she’s not – Dad just forgot where he put his watch. And (scene change) maybe Anne isn’t really his daughter, maybe it’s a woman with brown hair. And what about dinner? Didn’t Anne’s husband go into the kitchen with a chicken? But Anne says she hasn’t been married for years … so who’s this other guy? And who is making Dad cry? (And can someone please tell me why Dad prefers his other daughter so much and why he has to constantly mention she’s the one he really loves?)

A lot of elements of this play are just perfect. I loved the way it showed the way time elides for those with Alzheimers, backwards, forwards, sideways, while simultaneously there are moments of pure lucidity that make both the patient and the carer unsure of just how well the patient is. I also enjoyed the realistic depiction of the truly incredible stress it puts on all the family – from the carer who’s life is taken over, to the partner who’s totally lost the ability to have a family life other than as a carer’s adjunct, to the father who simultaneously argues his wellness while abusing people and is also himself the victim of abuse.

However, the desire to show non-narrative time wound up leaving me feeling too jounced around. While I got answers to some questions, I was never sure about most of the ones concerning the daughter, and the experience of time began to seem to me more important than actually expressing a plot. In the end, this was an interesting play, but not, I think, an excellent one; still, it was worth my time and certainly deserves its West End run.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 16, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Mini-review – The Hairy Ape – Old Vic Theater

November 10, 2015 by

Over the last few years, I’ve really warmed up to the work of Eugene O’Neill. There have been hits and misses, but the combined impact of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness can hardly be put into words. His ability to create characters that burn into your memory as icons of pure being … it’s like they walked from the world of Plato’s Ideals into our own, casting their shadows across the entire planet of twentieth century theater.

And then, well, he’s also got what I’d consider lesser works: bombastic, lecturing, obsessed with structure and politics over character and plot. Even knowing this, I queued up for The Old Vic’s production of The Hairy Ape, which seemed, by all indicators, early enough in his career to be shackled with cement-like boots of drivel (and was promoted as being from his socialist era – how dull!). But at 90 minutes and with Bertie Carvel, well, I asked myself, how bad could it be?

This, obviously, was a question asked by many others, as I was able to get half priced second row seats on the day and much of the upper reaches of the theater was echoingly empty. The script seemed both stylized and preachy – a bit much of a combo – and the characters seemed to be drawn from a random sack of easy stereotypes (the brutal laborer – Bertie Carvel, the spoiled heiress – Rosie Sheehy, the cowardly socialist, the calculating … frankly, the only character that showed any freedom was the ape in the zoo). As Rosie Sheehy pronounced her character’s easy, snobby assessments of the struggling workers she mocked – and as these characters showed themselves to be brutal, lazy, and ignorant – I felt that O’Neill himself was struggling to make a play that was not cartoonish. He seemed to have neither sympathy for nor insight into any of the people he was attempting to create on stage, and the effect was coming off rather like a silent movie, with Snidely Whiplash expected any moment.

And yet … somehow the actor’s heightened performances started working with the overblown dialogue, and, combined with the exaggeration of the set (so much acid yellow!) and movement, we started moving into a different realm … where the unreality became surreality, and Yank’s journey from the pits of the ship to the heights of New York society started to cohere. It was meant to be extreme, it was meant to be over the top, and, well, even though the dialogue was crap if you were going for naturalism, the second you made it into Expressionism it started to work.

And this was a ride I was willing to go along for. I cast aside my need for believable characters and set down to watch a morality tale set in 1920s New York – and tremendously enjoyed myself. I loved the over the top set pieces, I loved the ridiculousness, I bought into Carvel’s exaggerations of his horribly over the top man of muscles. And then, suddenly, it was over – much in the way you might have predicted it ending from about ten minutes in – and I found, even though this play would have been intolerable on paper, somehow Richard Jones had made the damn thing work on stage. Good on you, I say, and don’t miss it – the chances you’ll ever see such an enjoyable production of this show at any point in the rest of your life is slim.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Mini-review – Kwaidan – Rouge28 Theatre at the 2015 Suspense Festival

November 8, 2015 by

A Japanese ghost story told through the medium of Bunraku puppetry? This was the filter on the Suspense puppetry festival that led me to Kwaidan, and I was pretty excited about it. There are many sort of specialisms in the world of Japanese puppetry, and while I’ll go see all of them I’m particulary fond of bunraku, in which black clad puppeteers manipulate large puppets, the performers’ faces hidden by veils, their bodies disappearing into the shadows. It allows for a very different kind of movement that marionette or rod puppets, and I find the style allows the fourth wall to fall away easily. In addition, traditional bunraku puppets are made to a high degree of artistry, and the stories they are used to tell are ones that really capture my imagination. So, all in all, this show was one I was very interested in, even if I thought it was a bit more modern Japanese horror movie than traditional Japanese folk art.

I could have hardly asked for a better combination of form and content. The story is of a young woman (played, frequently, by an actress, not a puppet) who returns to her childhood home: it is apparently full of ghosts … or are they dreams? Or memories? She looks into a mirror – a lifesized puppet looks back at her, creepy as hell. Then it’s a mirror again. She tries to open a closet door – it won’t budge. Is it stuck or is something holding the door shut? As the story continues, we flip back and forth between the present and the past, and are left to make sense of what we see. A little girl is crying in the closet; a beautiful young woman walks through the apartment, leaving notes in a diary … that the modern young woman sees when she wakes up. The transition between humans and puppets is handled marvelously, with fantastic use of the darkness of doorways, the ambiguity of scrims, and the pitch black borders between rooms.

In the end, we’re mostly clear about what the haunting is about, although the story goes on a tiny bit too long and a bit where the “Red Rose” does a strip tease as a live actoress’s head above a tiny puppet’s body hit an unfortunately comic note when the tension was at its highest. I ended wondering if the house was just full of “hungry ghosts” or if the whole thing was supposed to be a nightmare or to represent the loss of sanity of the lead character – but still, I’d had chills enough for an evening and hugely enjoyed myself, so on that basis I think Kwaidan was very much a success.

(This review is for the first performance, on Thursday, November 5, 2015. It is touring and will be at the Manipulate Festival in Norwich.)

Review – The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – Wattle and Daub at New Diorama Theater

November 5, 2015 by

I wasn’t planning on writing this up, since I saw the second of its two performances at the Suspense Festival, but since they announced before the show that it is at the start of a tour … I will go ahead and throw my two cents in. I mean, I am (as a reviewer) a specialist in both puppetry and (to a lesser extent) opera … who better to provide an opinion?

Let’s be honest, although it was billed as “a monstrous chamber opera,” I did NOT take this seriously and thought it was a metaphor for an intimate show with a grotesque topic. No, I was quite wrong: Tarrare is very much an opera, performed with Bunraku-esque puppets, and sung by real live humans right there on stage (with a violinist and pianist providing accompaniment). I was not expecting singing, and I was not expecting it to go for 1:45 (with a 20 minute interval). And, while I was expecting Tararre (the puppet) to eat a bunch of strange things, I was not expecting him to choke them down like a cat hawking up a hairball, or, indeed, for him to vomit them back up again. This show was hard on the stomach.

Still, this unusual story, of am 18th century French man who was an sideshow attraction and spy, was an excellent choice for this format; no real actor could manage the feats Tarrare drew notoriety for, and the availability of actors with detachable ribcages and debilitating medical conditions is not as strong as one might expect even in London. So while Tarrare is being tortured in a (?) Prussian jail, we get to see him shit out the evidence (“He’s shitting/He’s shitting” definitely an opera lyric for the bucket list); and when he is with his sideshow friends, we get to hear two fantastic duets for conjoined twins (also a bucket list item in the opera world), which made me think that perhaps Geek Love might be a good choice for this group to take on next. Creatures in jars that can become singing and dancing parts of the cast is the kind of thing you’d expect only in puppetry; lead characters eating and vomiting up cats likewise benefitted from not being done by fleshly actors.

Musically, I found this actually quite digestible, with interesting falsetto singing from the two men (Daniel Harlock and Michael Longden) that didn’t quite hit the countertenor level of quality but which was still very serviceable, despite starting out a bit unintelligible: I wished for supertitles or a printed lyrics sheet.

But, you know, how was it as a PUPPET show? For me, despite the occasionally irritating sightlines (even from row 5, which unlike row 2 was elevated), the puppet movement was flawless: even the elongation and retraction of the necks of the twins had its own logic, and the shuffling of the fat baby puppet was utterly engrossing. Meanwhile the artistry of the puppets and various puppet bits was high quality and had a very finished, thought-out look to it; we were not fixed too strongly in history but were locked right in to humans with emotions that, in fact, transcended their highly limited physical forms – captured well in their faces, words and bodies.

Although my suspicion is that Tarrare the Freak will actually be continuing its evolution as it starts its tour, it is well worth seeing even in its current form. I’m glad I made the effort and I hope it does well as it reaches more audiences.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 at the Suspense Festival in London.)

Mini-review – Jane Eyre – Bristol Old Vic at the National Theater

October 28, 2015 by

What are you supposed to do when one of your best friends says that the theater tickets they would like as a birthday present (see why she rates so highly?) would be ones to Jane Eyre at the National? You think I’d jump up and down – it’s a story I like – but instead I felt a horrible foreboding. No, it was not the ticket cost (£50 or so), or the lack of availability, it was the LENGTH. Three and one half hours, my darlings. THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS. One interval. HOW COULD I EVER SURVIVE?

This kind of thing requires a plan of attack. The National has helped by starting the performances at 7 PM (NOTE THIS!!!), so that you’re done around 10:30; I decided to assist by going only for a Friday night or weekend performance, then prepped my body with a minimum of liquids beforehand (wine an absolute no – no, it’s nearly two hours before the interval) and … well, a light dinner. Because, believe it or not, when I got to the theater I discovered that I was running a temperature and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. (I did attempt to return my ticket but could not. My apologies to people sitting near me except that the woman who kept explaining plot points quite audibly to her 11 year old daughter, I sincerely hope your whole family comes down with whatever I had.) For normal people, I might recommend sweets, except NOT in the case of (again) the family sitting next to me, who crackled their packet of fudge so loudly they were shushed TWICE from people sitting behind them. Intolerable. Stick to the home cinema, people, or learn how to respect other audience members.

The amazing thing is that despite being weak, dehydrated, and at the end of a long work week, I had no problems at all making it through the near two hours it took to get to the interval. Jane Eyre is damned good story telling, and the decision to strip it back to almost no set and the barest of costuming served it well, making us focus on the characters, with little hints – a cap, a shawl – and the ever present Eyre – Madeleine Worral – and “woman in red” – Melanie Marshall (pretty easy to figure out who she was to be even in the first half of the evening where she only sang). The constraints of the multiple casting took away some opportunities for subtlety, but the flexibility of the cast ensured that we were never confused about who we were watching – a spoiled daughter, a starving girl, a slightly arrogant priest, et cetera. Instead we focused on Jane Jane Jane and Jane (with a little Rochester), for it is her story, and we must understand her journey, her sense of her own truth, and commit to and love her like nearly nobody else in this story is ever able to.

After the miracle of her survival of boarding school (and our survival of the first act), it was practically a romp getting through act two, set up in a grown up world and full of big reveals. Now, I know that these days Jane Eyre is such a classic that there seems no reason to even comment on her as a character, but a character with such a strong sense of self and of right and wrong seems to me rare in literature. I could feel the struggles of the poor in Jane’s every action; and I could see how there might have been thousands of other Eyres who ended their lives dead of starvation (even if they’d taken up prostitution to make the money that wasn’t there – Bronte doesn’t seem to include this as a possibility but we have to know that it’s a parallel track alongside the one Jane follows). In modern eyes, she is inflexible and moralistic, but for her indomitable spirit, she is infinitely inspirational. When flocks of women in Austen’s tales accept an unexciting marriage for financial convenience, Bronte’s heroine says no – not for love, but out of self-respect. I found it all a bit exhilarating, and not at all what I was expecting after such a long time. In retrospect, the price for the tickets was good, as it actually broke down to two plays for the price of one – again, a bit of a surprise for me. But having friends with good taste does have its rewards – even when I’m the one playing the Fairy Theater Godmother.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 23rd, 2015. It’s running through January 10th, so plenty of time to catch it still.)

Review – Xanadu (the stage musical) – Southwark Playhouse

October 22, 2015 by

While I love going into a show cold – not even knowing if it’s comedy or tragedy – I was unable to do this in the case of Southwark Theater’s Xanadu. Not only had I seen Xanadu on stage before, I’m a life long fan of the movie and even saw it when it was first released in the cinema. It’s worse, though – not only have I seen it time and time again on DVD (and VHS), I have listened to the soundtrack so many times I can sing along – and not just to the big songs, but to the Bsides you can only hear if you happen to have bought a copy of the singles on 45 (“Jungle Drums” and “Fool” being the two outtakes). Hi, my name is Webcowgirl and I am a Xanadu fangrrl.

This means it’s hard for me not to be hypercritical at a stage presentation of what should be seen (in my twisted world) as a timeless classic. I dug my heels in at the additional songs (two by Olivia Newton John – “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Physical” plus a couple from the ELO back catalogue) and grumbled over song arrangements and the loss of verses for my favorite tunes. But overall … I LOVED IT WITH A BIG PINK RAINBOW UNICORN ON TOP.


The thing is, Xanadu is a flawed movie. It has plot holes you can drive a truck through. It has stunningly bad acting. And it has amazing music and dance scenes. So the people who made this into a stage show took the badness (the male lead is just very poorly acted) and made them into jokes which should be funny enough for even a non-clued-up audience to get; then added all sorts of bits from the original (i.e. some of the amazing choreography) and patched over some of the problems (i.e. why does the heroine, Kira, talk in an Australian accent) then layered on all sorts of fun and, let’s admit it, camp (was there a centaur in the original or a pegasus? Uh, no, but both of them are likely to have tears rolling from your eyes). The audience was ho ho-ing and ha ha-ing and just eating it up.

It’s fortunate they were so amenable, because the preview performance I saw had a few problems with the sound quality: people singing and not being miked, or (worse) audible talking from back stage picked up by not-switched-off mikes. And if I’m applying my non-Xanadu loving faculties, I think there were some moments where the singing was not quite up to par, particularly for the actor playing Danny Maguire (although he put the role across quite well otherwise). But … Carly Anderson just embodied bubbly charisma as Kira, and, my goodness, Alison Jiear just brought down the house as evil muse Melpomene (in a subplot completely missing from the original, but, oh well, they bought me when they stuck in the Pegasus). And all of the jokey asides …. let me tell you a secret: I’ve already got tickets to go again, but I knew I was going to want to see it more than once … and it left me feeling so elated I think I may try to see it a third time.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 20th, 2015. It continues through November 21st. I recommend trying to get seats in the center section, preferably three rows back from the barriers around the stage so you can see over them.)

Review – A Little Night Music – All Star Productions at Rose and Crown pub

October 14, 2015 by

The Rose and Crown in Walthamstow is not an easy location for a show if you’re a south Londoner. Nearly ten minutes north of the terminus of the Victoria line, it’s about as far away as you can see theater as you can get while still staying within zone 2. But again and again I find myself making the trek to this pub for the fantastic productions All Star Productions keeps mounting in the upstairs space. It’s like Lost Musicas has decided to make fully fledged shows in a bijou venue – while you don’t usually get slumming West End stars, you do get deliciously unmiked singing and dancing so close that the skirts brush across your knees if you’re in the front row. I love this.

For A Little Night Music, I was, for once, not seeing a show pulled from the depths of obscurity: no, this Sondheim musical is probably his best known. It is even one that I had seen before, at the Menier, so the expectations were high – high enough that I got a ticket for previews because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. But that was nearly eight years ago now – and settling down in my (front row) seat, I realized I remembered about three things about the play; it’s about an aging actress hosting a party in the country (the other things I won’t mention as they’re spoilers). It’s got one famous song (“Send in the Clowns”) and another one that’s at least hummable; by Sondheim standards, this is fairly big news!

I’m pleased to report that, among other pleasures, this version of A Little Night Music feels as refreshing as an autumnal breeze after a stifling summer. The acting is genuinely comic: Sarah Waddell (as Desirée Armfeldt) is full of mischief and joie de vivre; while, in a surprising turn, Jamie Birkett’s (as the Countess Charlotte Malcom) had us nearly busting our corsets with laughter. I’d struggled to keep the stories straight before, but, even with the numerous dancers adding energy to the scenes, I never lost sight of the core: Desiree, her old lover Frederick (Alexander McMorran), and his young wife Anne (Maria Coyne). Coyne didn’t entirely hold up her end as she tended toward shrillness rather than subtlety and even managed to drown out McMorran’s first solo; well, that was alright in the end, because McMorran himself smoothly convinced me of the sorrows (and passions) of late middle age.

Although I could nearly complain that the show just became too busy (and even needed some softening), my suspicion is that a few more nights will have taken care of a few of the lumps, leaving the show stripped down to its core; a romance more bittersweet because of the passing of time. In some ways, in people’s ability to change their futures, this is more of a fairytale than Into the Woods: only with the dark burden of death hovering over it all, much like it does in daily life if we bother to raise our heads from our desks and realize the future we have to face. I recommend this well-sung evening – but do cushion your chair with a sweater as the first act is around ninety minutes on its own and the seats at this venue are NOT comfortable.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 8, 2015. If wishes were horses I’d like to see All Star Productions put a cast list online for this and all future shows so penny pinching reviewers can more easily credit cast members.)

Review – In the Heights – King’s Cross Theater

October 9, 2015 by

I was shafted out of seeing this the first time around. I was nearly broke, and just able to afford the discounted tickets you get with the 5 ticket scheme from Southwark Playhouse – and then, after buying it, discovered I couldn’t actually apply the ticket to the remaining performances of In The Heights. My money was gone (they wouldn’t give me a refund), and I was gutted. In the Heights was not going to happen because I did not have the money to go. I was pretty gutted, but poor is poor and Southwark Playhouse had absolutely no intention of giving me my money back.

Fast forward some three years and suddenly Miss Life in the Cheap Seats is actually able to afford a £20 theater ticket without running out of money before payday, and the return of In the Heights to the King’s Cross Theater meant a glorious kismet where I could FINALLY GO SEE IT. Wahoo! I got a ticket for OPENING NIGHT baby even though this meant I was going to have to dash from my train arriving from Oop North to Kings Cross in order to make curtain time – that said, this theater is LITERALLY behind King’s Cross station and couldn’t be any easier to get to – it wouldn’t have taken me ten minutes to get there if I’d gone the right way, heading towards but not all the way to Granary Square (probably your best choice for a pre-show dinner if you’re not just racing there like I was).

And … well … how was it? It was like this: I cried twice AND I was dancing in my seat. Actually, at the end I was dancing in the aisle (as the cast headed offstage to boogie with us lesser beings). I knew the show was set in a poor neighbourhood in New York City, but since I don’t know those neighborhoods of New York City, I didn’t know that Washington Heights was the Hispanic neighborhood – and not folks from Mexico but this incredible conglomeration of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic and all sorts of other amazing places where the culture is less about mariachi and caballeros and more about SALSA. Whoopee! All of this dancing and fabulous music … and then mixed into this is the cross cultural street sounds of hip hop/rap – which is what is sung to us by our protagonist, Usnavi. He’s got a crush on Vanessa – but she’s in the more traditional dancing crowd. Does this mean the show has chosen to represent the different musical interests as clashing, so we can have a Jets vs Sharks showdown? No, Lin-Manuel Miranda knows that the problems in the neighbourhood aren’t about petty differences like this; they’re about poverty and (to some extent) gentrification.

And it’s the poverty that, to me, drove the most compelling storyline. In a world where we’re really trying to sell the story that everyone has the opportunity to rise via education, In The Heights puts it in our faces that just being smart can’t compensate for being poor. Nina has been the one everyone has looked up to as the one who would make it out; but to get by at uni, she would need to, essentially, force her parents to sell everything they own, and bring them back down to the level they started at. It’s a heart breaking position to be in (and if you know the stats, even if she has the money success will not be guaranteed). The song her father sings about this situation – “Inutil (Useless)” – was the first moment I cried during this show. I’ve just never heard a song in a musical about how terrible it is to be able to do nothing to help your children and this caught so many emotions just right.

Throughout, the show has several opportunities to go for easy solutions, but deftly avoids them to keep the action fresh and unexpected. The men doing backflips on stage, the Piraguas man, the surprising blossoming of love (and harvest of death) – all mixed with so much Spanish that I found myself wondering how well the British audience was doing at following along. But I had no problems at all, and ended the night feeling joyous and triumphant at having been present at one of the most amazing musicals written in the 21st century. Wow! I know I had to wait three years to see this the first time, but I promise I am going to be back before the November 1st end of its run, because this show is too good to not enjoy every little minute of it twice.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2015. It continues through November 1st. If you’ve seen the show, you might enjoy this article about where the characters might all wind up in ten years – but it contains spoilers so be warned!)

Review – Mr Foote’s Other Leg – Hampstead Theater

October 6, 2015 by

I get a kick out of seeing shows that are headed for a transfer, and, as the fall season is ramping up, it looks like the clear winners of the race to the West End are Royal Court’s Hangman and Hampstead Theater’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg. In fact, Mr Foote’s transfer was announced today – so all the more reason to try to see it while it’s still in the intimate, affordable (£35 top seat) Hampstead Theater.

While the original Mr Foote was quite famous in his time, few people have heard about him these days – the one legged performer who once owned the Haymarket Theater (and, in fact, secured a royal license for it). Ian Kelly has attempted to remedy this with his recent biography of the late-18th century comedian/writer/debtor/sexual criminal. This biography forms the basis for the stage play, but, as a play, it takes certain liberties with the story in order to propel the action properly (a trick used frequently by Shakespeare) – most notably in the set up for the loss of Mr. Foote’s other foot, the onstage amputation of which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “sight gag.”

As played, this show focuses on the trio of Foote (Simon Russell Beale, as camp as a Girl Scout’s summer), his leading lady “Mrs” Woofington (the heartbreaking Dervla Kirwan), and the “leader of the opposition,” David Garrick (a somewhat stiff Joseph Millson). The three of them fight for fame and audience share, while sharing the stage and occasionally a bed (well, at least in one scene). Their journey is the heart of the show, but there’s a lot more to enjoy. In fact, the cast is nearly overegged with talent – Ian Kelly (showing off, I thought, as Prince George); Micah Balfour (as Foote’s servant and accuser, Frank Barber); and Jenny Galloway (as the acid-tongued stage manager and house mistress Mrs Garner) shine like little suns every time they are on stage. And this is on top of the glorious set – the recreation of what looks like the Hunterian Museum was most impressive.

But what this show is most of all – with its questionably period language and its perfectly period stage dressing – was a love song to theater. Its terrible jokes, its celebration of improv, the heartbreak of aging, the struggles of getting audiences when the government wants to shut you down – they’re the same kind of jokes you could hear (with American accents) in Face the Music and a million other plays of its ilk. But in this case, we’ve got the cream of London talent on stage telling the jokes and the best dressers money can buy making the whole thing look gorgeous. The script is just a little bit lazy – the ending kind of falls apart (“What, that was it?” said the woman sitting next to me), and the inclusion of the memory speeches seemed like a bunch of padding that were pretty but could just as well be stripped out in favor of a more direct experience of Foote’s failing brainpan. Still … this was a pretty glorious evening overall, and I think people will embrace it roundly at the Theater Royal Haymarket. In fact, the combination of the location (the theater Foote is connected to) and Simon Russell Beale is awfully magic. Go get yourself a ticket; I think you’ll find yourself having a very nice evening. And remember: NOBODY’S LEG IS CUT OFF DURING THIS PLAY.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, September 28, 2015. It has been extended and can be enjoyed at the Theater Royal Haymarket until January 23rd, which is a darned good thing as it’s completely sold out for its run at the Hampstead.)


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