FringeReview UK 2017
Ian Kelly’s 2015 comedy Mr Foote’s Other Leg is brought to Lewes Little Theatre by director Sandra Tomlinson. Set designer Dudley Ward and his working Party provide stage interiors, deft movables, several scenic backdrops (including a Gainsborough park) used just once, and source an equipage of Benjamin Franklin’s electrical devices. Ward and lighting designer Trevor Morgan and Handel-rich sound designer Gareth Budden block the Lewes space with classic restraint crossed with bustle. Wardrobe and costumes are in the house’s best tradition.
Sandra Tomlinson brings Ian Kelly’s 2015 comedy Mr Foote’s Other Leg to Lewes Little Theatre. That’s a sentence worth savouring; not Brighton, Lewes. This brilliantly filthy, soaring and shattering comic masterpiece isn’t just difficult to contemplate, but difficult to do (to use an onanistic Monty Python phrase).
We get everything but the smell, except candles. Set designer Dudley Ward and his working Party provide stage interiors, deft movables, several scenic backdrops (including a Gainsborough park) used just once, and source an equipage of Benjamin Franklin’s electrical devices. Even those of us who recall the Haymarket’s glittering dust, only recently settled and where the play’s set, will forget it here. Ward and lighting designer Trevor Morgan and Handel-rich sound designer Gareth Budden block the Lewes space with classic restraint crossed with bustle. Wardrobe and costumes are in the house’s best tradition.
The lights don’t go up. Patti Page’s Mrs Garner lantern-swinging with Ed Samuel’s Frank Barber are trying to steal a pickled leg belonging to their old friend Mr Foote, from Doctor Hunter, another old friend attached to it. Disturbing the row of penises Mrs G notes one ‘of your persuasion, Mr Frank… Cocks in bottles. Best place for them. Trip down memory lane….’ Recognizing one she knew neither three-legged Mrs G nor Mr Frank notice Hunter’s blunderbuss. ‘Leg it’ she commands.
The language hints at what’s to come. Labels read out neatly refer us to Foote’s career, The English Aristophanes. Impressionist and fine dramatist – openly gay, drag-artist, even ‘unidexter drag-artist’ – his final scandal eclipsed the American Revolution. But after all he coined ‘tea party’ and knew Benjamin Franklin.
Samuel Foote (1720-77) made a living after being sent down from Oxford by selling an account of how one uncle murdered the other. It’s inadvertent murder we get as Foote and other hopefuls, Lichfield David Garrick, Dublin Smock Alley Peg Woffington, and a haughtily silent Miss Chudleigh and Doctor Hunter all waiting Michael Bulman’s Charles Mackmin, the great naturalistic actor. Mackmin accidentally stabs another actor Hallam through the eye; even the promised application of Peg’s urine doesn’t save him. Mackmin’s ruin is the party’s gain.
This is all without the help of Stephen Lowin’s Foote stumping up on stage. You’ll know whether it’s for you. If it isn’t, I tremble for your soul. Happily the religion we’re mostly subjected to is the rising one of science, where Hunter (Tim Freeman) is fascinated by Benjamin Franklin’s electrical experiments. Freeman’s elegantly lean Edinburgh counters David Parton’s American in a colloquy of opinion. Quite why this subplot intervenes we discover, first, by the famous accident; second, by the cerebral effects – disinhibitors pushing Foote far beyond acceptability – diagnosed as electrical impulses, phantom nerves.
It’s a clever device, since Hunter really did supervise his friend Foote’s amputation, the rest being plausible compression. It’s true Garrick and Woffington took up, and were friends (and Garrick rival) to Foote. Kelly’s skill in creating a dysfunctional but essentially loving theatrical family contrasts with the curious intimacy with which the future George III (stalking, powerfully contained Simon Hellier) can claim a moment’s audience backstage, causing the bet whereby Foote loses his leg on the Duke of York’s horse. Hellier, talking Kelly’s own role, is both commanding and on occasion softens – literally unbends – to consolation.
The great coup revolves round the cast assisting in Foote’s amputation done in ninety seconds. ‘It’s going to be bloody difficult to top that in the second act.’ This last comment was managed not onstage as with Simon Russell Beale but after Lowin’s wheeled off and spoken from the wings. The logistics on a small stage of spinning Lowin around – up to now it’s done with Lowin’s back to the audience – proves too challenging. It hardly matters.
Kelly’s shrewd enough to lower the temperature in a far shorter second act, after a Gainsborough park invalidism where Ed Samuel’s Frank Barber enjoys his most touching scene. It’s a timely reminder too of the role people of colour played in Georgian London, particularly in the arts. In Samuel’s debut a lack of vocal projection is understandable, but here he suddenly proves what a fine natural actor he is, tending Foote’s querulousness with quiet authority and cadenced warmth.
Foote’s defiant return, never before contemplated comes replete with every pun on pegs and legs imaginable. With this though comes a risqué heedlessness Hunter attributes to nerve damages, clots travelling to the brain. Foote’s not the only one faced with decline either, and there’s a comic, devastating three-in-a-bed vigil. He insults Woffington. Worse, he sexually assaults Frank who makes a police statement but still returns. Kelly’s harrowing, masterly stagecraft after such high (or low) jests, is no less so for being true. Foote’s final ruinous attempt to defy The Chudleigh, the silent litigious bigamist he portrays as Kitty Crocodile sends him into one last defiant gig.
Lowin’s born for this. From winking repartee to snarl and the snap of great timing, Lowin makes this his role, despite recent provenance. He swaggers out Foote’s presence, his sang-froid put-downs and sudden ghastly pathos banished in seconds.
Pippa Randall’s Woffington equals him, overwhelming as the downright Irish diva, whether straining to urinate or at the other extreme of experience. Randall matches Lowin and Neil Sellman’s fine Garrick. Love for love, she fills her role with impatience, patience, pathos and panache. Her drollery’s infectious. Sellman certainly holds his own against these two commanding interpretations. Michael Bulman’s Mackmin is all baffled glory and abject horror. Patti Page’s Mrs Garner relishes many of the best lines in her detailed etch of a role, delivering them with subversive glee. And she always has the next-last word.
Slapstick comedy is difficult to bring off, even more fiendish to write. The director’s pace is nearly everything, and this sizzles. Tomlinson’s cast turn in here a performance as fine as anything I’ve seen in Lewes since I was a child fifty years ago. I never thought I’d write that. Most of all, Kelly’s superb play in their hands lowers not a tap in one of Franklin’s thermometers to any professional production.