Mr Foote's Other Leg is a wild, and wildly funny, backstage comedy about a foot(e)note to 18th century theatrical history: a one-legged Georgian transvestite actor called Samuel Foote who was a contemporary of the more enduringly famous David Garrick, but who inspired a lot of affection in his colleagues even as he is shown to lose both his leg and his mental health here.
But above all the play — by actor turned playwright Ian Kelly, who also appears in the production as Prince George (later George III, who would of course become the subject of his own play The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett) — is an utterly irresistible paean to the love, eccentricity and evanescence of the theatre itself. It reclaims a lost figure and puts him centerstage again where he belongs and in whose spotlight, like all theatre people, he truly comes alive. The show must always go on — whatever trials and tribulations a person faces; even, as here, when he loses his leg.
There's a plaque in the Actors' Church in Covent Garden that bears an epitaph to a "talented player of small parts." In a programme note, Ian Kelly says that he recently sat by it at a memorial service, and that his is "a play about those who are forgotten, about lost reputations and theatre ghosts, about the evanescence of things, which is some of theatre's power." The play has a similar in-the-moment vitality and raw vigour; I loved every moment of it while watching it, but the play won't necessarily linger in the memory.
But Simon Russell Beale's performance will not be so easily forgotten. We already know he's one of our funniest, boldest and brilliant of all stage actors; here he pulls out all the stops for a performance that starts fruity and fabulous — with glamorous gowns enfolding and amplifying his already larger figure —but also magnificently charts his strength in physical adversity to overcome the loss of his leg and act again.
Richard Eyre's loving, generous hearted production is also populated by hilarious performances around him, including Jenny Galloway as a stage manager, whose contribution — then as too often still now — is underrated, Joseph Millson as the loyal but far more famous Garrick, Dervla Kirwan as Irish stay actress Peg Woffington and Forbes Masson as the celebrated surgeon John Hunter who treated Foote.
The play is surely West End bound; and where better than the Haymarket, which was Foote's own theatrical home and whose royal patent he helped to secure?