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.)