A theatrical love story

Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket (London)

Joseph Millson (Garrick), Dervla Kirwan (Peg) and Simon Russell Beale (Mr Foote)  ©Tristram Kenton

I didn’t plan it this way (it was more to do with the expediencies of ticketing and time off work) but Mr Foote’s Other Leg turns out to be the ideal way to round off the blog for this year.

You see, earlier this year, I started working in a theatre – in the marketing department of The Marlowe, my local theatre in Canterbury. Before that I was a more than averagely exasperated TV news producer (producers who have been in the job for more than about five years are generally either harassed or exasperated; it’s the nature of the job). My job and I had grown disillusioned with each other – so I quit, and got a job I actually like instead (it was slightly more complicated and traumatic than that, but you get the idea). So Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which feels like a love letter to theatre itself, seems like a good last play of the year.

Written by Ian Kelly (who also appears in the cast as George III) it tells the story of Samuel Foote, a comic actor and producer of the eighteenth century (and a friend and rival of David Garrick), who became the first person to hold a Royal Warrant for what is now the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, despite having had a leg amputated after falling off a horse. It’s one of the funniest and saddest plays I’ve seen all year. It celebrates not just theatre, but comic theatre in particular, defending it against those who think only tragedy is worthy. My favourite line among many good ones comes in response to Garrick’s horror at Foote’s plan to stage ‘Othello: The Comedy’: “If Shakespeare can’t take a joke he isn’t an Englishman.”

It’s a good story, and a good script, but the cast are to die for. They’re led by Simon Russell Beale as the eponymous Mr Foote. I have worshipped the boards trodden by him ever since I first saw him on stage with the RSC as a teenager, playing Edgar in King Lear. In the same season I also saw him as Ariel in The Tempest – and yes, eyebrows were definitely raised at the prospect of the somewhat, ahem, cuddly Simon as the ‘airy spirit’ but he carried it off beautifully. (Incidentally, rumours from very good sources suggest he’ll be back at the RSC next year, and back in The Tempest, this time playing Prospero, a prospect which has me drooling in anticipation). He is as brilliant as ever in this, through all of Foote’s successes to his eventual decline, after being sued for satirizing a society lady.

Dervla Kirwan plays his – and Garrick’s – leading lady, Peg Woffington, with aplomb (Peg was also Garrick’s lover). Some reviews seem to have concentrated on the play’s depiction of the rival between Foote and Garrick; I thought the friendship between Peg and Foote was more integral to the play – a love story of a different kind, beautifully played by both actors.

In a lesser play, or with a lesser actor, David Garrick could have been a thankless role- A pompous rotter who dumps our beloved Peg to go in search of respectability, on stage and off, but Joseph Millson does a good job with a good script, turning in an excellent and commendably subtle performance (surely there must be a temptation to over-act if playing David Garrick?) which keeps our sympathies divided – and therefore makes the play much more interesting. He also starts the play with a West Midlands accent which had me scurrying to Google post-performance – and yes, it seems the great Garrick did grow up in Lichfield, and may therefore have really begun his career sounding alarmingly Brummie.

The minor roles are equally well-played, from writer Ian Kelly as the King, via Micah Balfour and Jenny Galloway as two vividly drawn ‘backstage’ characters, to a special mention for Sophie Bleasdale, making the most of a virtually silent role as Foote’s eventual Nemesis, Elizabeth Chudleigh.