Hampstead Theatre, London – until 17 October 2015
A FINE PLUM-PUDDING OF ACTS AND IDEAS
“Sex and the 18th century” said Brigid Brophy, quoted by the playwright Sam Kelly, “are the two most interesting things in the world”. The fiery, subversive free spirits of the time certainly kicked at religious, scientific and social barriers with glee: Georgians are never boring. And Kelly dramatizes and telescopes the career of one of the ripest: Samuel Foote. Actor, dramatist and theatre manager, whose “mimicry and audacious pleasantries” got him thrown out of Oxford , he found celebrity, clashed with censors and rivals, sparred with friends – Garrick, Peg Woffington, Prince George himself – had a leg amputated after being thrown by a royal horse, rallied, got a royal warrant as compensation, and used his wooden leg as a comedy prop, often while wearing a frock and bonnet. Oh, and he was tried for homosexual assault of a footman.
Kelly gives us this irresistible figure as a very modern character: a satirical celebrity who admits that he has “something wrong in my head, I never knew when a joke went too far” . A man living on the edge financially and professionally, never ceding to prudence or decorum, whose decline is both inevitable and wrenchingly sad. Who better to play it than the matchless, the twinkling, the deep-feeling, unassailably truthful, woundedly human , energetically rageous and intermittently dead camp Simon Russell Beale. What a treat.
The play kicks off with giddy comedy in a flash-forward , as Foote’s faithful servant the freed slave Frank (Micah Balfour) searches Dr Hunter’s anatomy store for his dead master’s old wooden leg, assisted by the old stage-manager Mrs Garner (Jenny Galloway, dropping tart lines with killer precision as she searches the specimen racks – “Cocks in bottles, best place for them”). It whips back twenty years, and on Tim Hatley’s fine backstage set we find our hero taking elocution lessons backstage under Charles Macklin, alongside a Brummie-accented David Garrick (Joseph Millson) and a still almost incomprehensibly Irish Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan). Foote himself , looking like a truculent Mr Toad in a periwig, has learnt the part of Titania. So we don’t stop laughing for the first ten minutes, even through a fatal onstage accident and a backstage pisspot intervention.
And the laughs go on, as Foote ,Garrick and Woffington start a rival theatre, running skits in the Haymarket until Garrick peels off to be more respectably Shakespearian. While Foote perversely decides that Othello could be played as a comedy, it leads to a scene unique in drama when two Othellos, blacked-up in identical tunics, brawl violently in the dressing-room where Woffington in her petticoats and the black Jamaican, Frank, try to separate them and the new King George III (Ian Kelly himself) appears in the doorway.
The loss of Foote’s leg, and his descent through deeper disinihibition and recklessness, darken the second half; sweetened by the ultimately touching reconciliation of the three friends in Woffington’s final illness (Kirwan is superb as the gallant, sexually free trouper). Above all there is Russell Beale’s gift for simultaneously conveying Foote’s personal despair , heroic flippancy and – beneath the latter – a genuine and important conviction that comedy, subversion, drag and satire are high moral forms. Raging against Garrick’s sacred-Shakespeare pomposity he cries “The theatre is a knocking-shop , always was..laughter means the audience is rubbing up against something they thought was right”.
Woven in with this is Dr Hunter (Forbes Masson) and his medical questing, alongside Benjamin Franklin to debate the mystery of consciousness in the brain with both chemical and electrical impulses, with a metaphor of thoughts hovering in
themselves in a communal zero-gravity suspension. It is all, as Frank joyfully says of London, “inebriating”. Though there are moments in the second half when it needs a bit more soda in the tipple, as theatre, censorship, medicine, brain science, Abolitionism, American independence, the rotting effect of celebrity and the capturing of lighting with kites all jostle for attention, and Foote becomes a lost Lear in a huge feather bonnet crying “We do not know we have a mind until we begin to lose it”. It’s a rich plum-pudding , and maybe could have done with the omission of a nut or two. But wow.
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