One can say, with some certainty, that Samuel Foote (1720-77) would have relished the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where a hopping monoped auditions for the role of Tarzan: “I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you”. Indeed, you could argue that this Truro-born actor, playwright, theatre-manager, pioneer of “improv” and dangerous alternative comedy, helped to inspire it. Simon Russell Beale is in his tragi-hilarious element here portraying the now-undersung figure who refused to allow a leg-amputation in 1766 to cut off his career.
Foote specialised in transvestite roles in confrontational shows that side-stepped the stringent stage censorship of the times by being unscripted affairs, advertised as tea-parties and such. He turned his disability into part of his satiric weaponry by drawing attention to it in plays such as The Lame Lover and in gleefully groan-worthy gags: “I am more than a bit hacked-off, Mr Garrick, in fact, sir, I'm stumped.”
Ian Kelly, who appears as the future George III, has adapted his award-winning biography of Foote and taken some well-judged liberties with the factual record. Richard Eyre directs with admirable command of the play's tricky tonal palette. Pauline Kael wrote that Streisand's face is “completed” by tears. Would it be also true to say that Simon Russell Beale is completed by the spilling silks of full Gainsborough drag? Well, put it this way – Eddie Izzard, eat your heart out, dude. Joseph Millson deliciously conveys the deferential, genteel simpers of the cautious, social-climbing Garrick, whose approach to power contrasts with Foote's free-wheeling, subversive energy and originality (Othello presented as a comedy, anyone?) that Russell Beale brings to such wonderfully unregenerate life
Did the riding accident in which he lost his leg damage Foote's brain? A cork prosthesis allowed him to maintain physical equilibrium. But there's a Lear-like terror and pathos in Russell Beale's depiction of his increasing lack of mental balance (the play is much concerned with the mind) and there are haunting pre-echoes of the Wilde scenario in his refusal to fly abroad when accused of sexual assault by his male servant. Let's hope that the production transfers. What use is a tour with only one leg?
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