Plays about the theatre can sometimes be dangerous territory. Whilst workplace comedies and their occupational hazards often provide ample comic potential, in both character and situation, plays about the art of acting and performing can sometimes feel exclusive and artificial. The historical truth and combination of real-life dramatis personae, which ranges from David Garrick to Benjamin Franklin and King George III, lend weight to this outrageously funny historical drama that entertains and educates in equal measure.
There is no better venue for Ian Kelly's riotous comedy to land direct from a sell-out run at the Hampstead Theatre than the Theatre Royal Haymarket. This is the precise theatre Samuel Foote managed from 1746, pushing the boundaries of performance in order to avoid the Licensing Act and securing the Royal Charter from Prince George, set at a time of great upheaval as the country battled to keep America. Despite the weighty context, you're never overwhelmed by facts or detail - in fact quite the opposite, and I found myself rushing home to read up more about this most fascinating 'foote' note in history.
The bawdy comedic tone is established immediately which sets up an energetic performance that keeps the laughs coming at every turn. Despite Simon Russell Beale's imitable performance, this is by its very nature a true ensemble triumph for the unanimously talented cast. Jenny Galloway delivers a masterclass in comic timing and delivery, and every one of her laugh-out-loud jokes threatens to bring down the house. There is similarly outstanding support from Dervla Kirwan as Peg Woffington and Joseph Millson as David Garrick, languishing in the actors' stereotype, but also finding real tender moments in the second act that help humanise both larger-than-life characters, providing a much needed release.
Tim Hatley's designs are outstandingly effective at moulding the onstage and offstage world, cementing the 'third place' between audience and actors as the most important meeting point of their lives. For a play that relies so heavily on the act of dressing up and diegetic performance, the atmosphere is effectively conveyed for the off-stage drama to carefully unwind simultaneously, showing utter strength in Kelly's finely crafted text.
Beneath the quick fire dialogue and perfectly judged physical humour lies a truly moving story about an actor with a secret. Underneath the superficiality of the make up and wigs lies a physically and mentally broken soul, forced to hide his sexuality and supress his true feelings. Like many people, the comedic mask is used as a barrier for these complex emotions, and Simon Russell Beale provides sufficient layers to the eccentric character for us to see where the true heart of the production lies. His performance is outstanding in every respect and has the ability to move you to tears of both laughter and despair, played with hearty helpings of truth and dignity.
This is a production that commits you wholly to superlatives, and sticks out as being one of the most enjoyable evenings spent in the West End for some time. The combination of a historically intriguing story, a heartily funny script and truly remarkable performances results in one of the must see plays of the season.
s prodigal, pluralist talent."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Matthew Dunster directs a first-rank cast of 12...and already has an almost sold-out hit on his hands. If this doesnt get a West End transfer, itll be a major miscarriage of common sense."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph