Ian Kelly is a sickeningly versatile chap. As an actor, he appeared in the West Finish and on Broadway in The Pitmen Painters as a historian, his biography of Casanova won the Sunday Instances biography of the year award as a co-writer, his perform on Vivienne Westwood’s memoir has enjoyed a much less smooth ride. Now he has adapted his 2012 book subtitled Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London for the stage, and seems in Richard Eyre’s production as Prince George.
Kelly focuses on the 1-legged transvestite comedian (!) Samuel Foote, whom he portrays as a “frenemy” of David Garrick, operating comedies at the Haymarket Theatre in rivalry with Garrick’s Shakespeares at Drury Lane. When Foote has a leg amputated following a riding accident resulting from a frivolous bet, his career continues but he grows a lot more bitter and significantly less restrained, particularly relating to his sexuality, which proves his downfall.
Kelly’s dramatisation is largely faithful to historical record, though he requires some liberties by folding in characters such as Benjamin Franklin in order to incorporate much more of the material that fascinates him. And what fascinates him is practically almost everything to do with the 18th century and/or the theatre. We touch on political history, theories of electrical fluid powering the human brain, race, homosexuality and the culture of celebrity embodied at the time in theatre, as properly as a mass of anecdotage.
If any person could hold all these plates spinning onstage at as soon as, it is Simon Russell Beale. He virtually succeeds as Foote, especially throughout the plump puckishness of the 1st act, ahead of subsiding into his trademark astringent self-awareness, clumping around on a wooden leg in a selection of frocks with constructed-in embonpoint. Joseph Millson as Garrick and Dervla Kirwan as the Irish-born actress Peg Woffington head a likewise assiduous supporting cast.
Even so, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I was getting fascinated simply because I was already predisposed towards the subject and that other people may well find it hermetic the second act appeared to bear this out, in that the deeper and a lot more serious the material grows, the less compelling and more impenetrable it becomes. Like its topic, it stands firmly on a single side only.
To October 17, hampsteadtheatre.com
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