Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, a historical fiction, is jam-packed in every way that it is possible to be jam-packed. Not content with ‘merely’ following the legendary Samuel Foote for a twenty-year chunk of his life, a life of which two years would have provided enough dramatic tension and hilarity to fill the two hours and forty minute time slot admirably. Kelly also ropes in characters who hold their own place in history, who are big enough to take centre stage, but who are content to be side-lined (in style) by Simon Russell Beale’s Mr. Foote. Characters like the famed actor and playwright David Garrick (Joseph Millson), distinguished surgeon John Hunter (Forbes Masson) and the Benjamin Franklin (Colin Stinton), amongst others.
The narrative has an awful lot to carry and carries it swiftly, through seamless direction from Richard Eyre who changes scenes with wall-to-wall props and intricate little worlds so smoothly you fear blinking. What’s more, it’s not just the elaborate set, the rollercoaster biography and the list of historic characters as long as your arm that the play is carrying, but also an acute balance of emotion. The audience is on a knife’s edge between shoulder-shaking, raucous laughter and full-blown emotional breakdown. Given that I find myself having to stop for breath after that small description of the Mr Foote’s Other Leg, is it too much? Have Kelly and Eyre bitten off more than the audience can chew? Or has Mr Foote’s Other Leg quite simply got it all?
Well, it all hangs in the way that it is told. There’s plenty of opportunity for limelight to be hogged, plenty of characters deserving of that glory, but it never happens; it maintains balance. There are as many segments of narrative that are more than capable of standing alone: when is an eighteenth century, one-legged, transvestite comedian ever not enough of a story without the need for backup? But the backup comes thick and fast and we are well and truly on side with it throughout – partially, because of classic camaraderie as, at its heart, Samuel Foote’s story is an age-old rags to riches. A journey so fraught with agony and disaster that it is recognisable to all of us: except we never do disaster so good. The humour and humanity with which Foote deals with failure and adversity is admirable enough to guise the turbulence and for his ultimate breakdown and descent into unwilled madness to shock us. Despite the fact that we saw every step of its onset.
Would it be possible to garner this effect if it were shaved down a little, simplified and to the point? Maybe, but so many of the scenes are golden and utterly unmissable. Foote’s desire to put on Othello as a comedy showcases the character impeccably and allows for a fight to breakout between two blacked-up actors (Foote and Garrick), with Foote’s black footman Frank (Micah Balfour) finding himself in the middle of it in attempt to break it up, which is just pure, unadulterated slapstick at its absolute finest. You cannot lose moments like that. Nor can you lose the quieter moments, in which relationships are built beautifully or jokes are told garishly. There is not a single duff note in the whole of Mr Foote’s Other Leg. It has comedy. It has tragedy. It has love, loss, satire, a hero, some half-villains, slapstick, naturalism, perfect lighting, flawless performance, costumes to die for, a set to explore. Yeah, I’m set on it: Mr Foote’s Other Leg pretty much has it all.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg is playing at Hampstead Theatre until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website. Photo by Nobby Clarke.