A dark dramedy at the Hampstead Theatre passed the time this afternoon, in the story of Samuel Foote, low comedian, crossdresser and media-bait. Played with flair and fuss by Simon Russell Beale, Foote could slump into caricature but does not, mainly due to the skill of both actor and writer in making the character a rounded one, in some ways a fool but in other a figure of sympathy.
We first find Foote in a backstage elocution class with the other major characters of the play – Midlands-accented David Garrick (Joseph Millson, who catches at chances of comedy and moments of pathos with ease), Irish Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan, vulgar and finally pathetic), Scots Jock Hunter (Forbes Masson, who perhaps overdoes the accent), and mute Miss Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale).
Their coach, Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton, who reappears later as Benjamin Franklin and is good in both roles) quickly tarnishes his character by accidentally killing a fellow actor, and Foote and friends start their own company, with Jenny Galloway as their jaded tour manager and Micah Balfour as proud free-man and former Jamaican slave Frank Barber. Foote plays grotesque distaff roles while Peg plays young britches parts or gartered tarts (and off-stage works her way through the beds of various luminaries including the eldest son of the King, Prince George, who is played by the play’s writer, Ian Kelly).
This is a strange play, one which has ribald belly laughs alongside moments of desperation, and one gut-churning scene which deals with the aftermath of a horse-riding accident which leads to Foote having his leg amputated in graphic (verbal) detail on stage. The tensions between the comedy and the tragedy may not always work, although in pockets and scenes the mix is effective (for example, a piece of tenderness between Garrick and Peg).
Directed by Richard Eyre, it is not a typical piece you would expect from him, and some may balk at the large use of profanity throughout the play, but with a little tightening of scenes and a slightly less sluggish pace this could be an extremely successful production.