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Mr Foote’s Other Leg review at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – ‘witty and warm hearted’

Simon Russell Beale and Ian Kelly in Mr Foote's Other Leg at Wyndham's Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Simon Russell Beale and Ian Kelly in Mr Foote's Other Leg at Wyndham's Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This is something of a homecoming. Samuel Foote – the subject of Ian Kelly’s acclaimed biography, on which this play is based – was a pivotal figure in the history of the Haymarket Theatre; a popular 18th-century satirist and actor-manager, now largely forgotten, he was instrumental in securing its Royal Warrant.

Originating at Hampstead Theatre, it can feel overstuffed at times in its attempt to evoke all the hungers of the period: for knowledge, entertainment, and more physical pleasures. David Garrick, Benjamin Franklin, John Hunter, Frank Barber – Samuel Johnson’s friend and servant, here recast as Foote’s dresser – all put in an appearance. Kelly, who adapted his book for the stage and also stars as Prince George, has left little out. But this wealth of historical detail sits alongside a more shaded meditation on theatre; the friendship and the rivalry which exists between Simon Russell Beale, as Foote, Joseph Millson, as Garrick, and Dervla Kirwan, as Irish actress Peg Woffington, is warmly played by all three, and the liquid shift between the comic and tragic, from the broad and bawdy to something altogether more raw, is deftly handled.

Structurally it’s something of a jumble and it contains some dubious comedy moments, but Russell Beale anchors things, his performance carefully calibrated. After Foote loses his leg in a riding accident, he becomes increasingly brittle and disinhibited. This change in his personality is affectingly, tenderly played and Richard Eyre’s production as a whole gains in resonance from being staged in the theatre which Foote helped build.

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Witty and warm-hearted account of a forgotten figure of London theatre history