Mid-September turned out to be a great time for theatregoing. I saw four excellent plays in less than ten days. Starting with Al Smith's Harrogate at the Hightide Festival in Aldeburgh, I went on to the Royal Court to see Hangmen and rounded off the week with two very entertaining new historical comedies, Ian Kelly's Mr Foote's Other Leg at Hampstead and Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare's Globe.
I'm giving in to the temptation of writing a compare-and-contrast review of the last two, which are in many ways similar, but also differ in some important ways. Ian Kelly has turned his prize-winning biography of Foote, a forgotten star of the Georgian comic theatre, into an erudite and very funny comic vision of 18th century London life. For anyone who doesn't know the period and who hasn't had a chance to read the book, the play might seem a bit too packed with historical characters and detail. Simon Russell Beale does not disappoint in the role of Foote, turning him into a genuinely tragic figure. The amputation of his left leg after a ghastly riding accident prompted by a bet almost ended Foote's life, but his stage career continued and he turned his terrible injury to comic effect He was as famous as his friend David Garrick and the man who attached the word 'Royal' to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. But his career as a celebrity fizzled out in disgrace after he was accused of sexual assault on his manservant.
Kelly surrounds him with a cast of unforgettable characters, some real and some invented, who are so well drawn that Russell Beale doesn't have to carry the entire play on his own. They include sterling performances by Kelly himself as the young George III, and by Dervla Kirwan as the Irish actress Peg Woffington. Joseph Millson captures the essence of Garrick, a Shakespeare-obsessed and slightly humourless man from the Midlands and who is outraged by Foote's irreverent plan to stage Othello as a comedy. Frank Barber, a freed slave from Jamaica, is well played by Micah Balfour, and Forbes Masson is equally impressive as the Scottish surgeon and medical pioneer John Hunter. Richard Eyre's direction and Tim Hatley's design, suggesting a backstage theatre dressingroom, are flawless.
Nell Gwynn features another theatre star from the previous century, who has not been forgotten. Everyone knows she sold oranges, became an actress and then the mistress of Charles II. Jessica Swale, whose debut play Blue Stockings triumphed on the Globe stage last year, turns Nell into an all-singing all-dancing one-woman theatrical revolutionary. This is a celebratory play, which offers an unapologetically feminist perspective on Nell's life. If anything, it's even funnier than Kelly's play, partly because it exploits the full size of the Globe stage and the opportunities if offers for interaction with the audience. As Nell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is quite sensational, dominating the stage in a way that few other Globe actors ever manage. It is her central performance which turns the play and its bawdy humour into a riotous romp. Jessica Swale's play, like Kelly's, is shamelessly crammed with theatrical and Shakespearean jokes; it differs in being more accessible and less dark, but its use of music and dance give it an exhilarating flair. Nell's upward march is temporarily halted by bouts of misfortune and jeopardy, but they don't last too long. Even when KIng Charles (a rather miscast David Sturzaker) dumps her for a more aristocratic French model, Nell emerges on top and the play ends on an upbeat note. Two wonderful actresses, Amanda Lawrence and Sarah Woodward provide a lesson in how to turn turn minor parts into major laughs. In general the female roles are more strongly written than the male ones, and the question of whether Charles was really in love with Nell or just saw her as another notch on his bedpost is left open.
Mr Foote's Other Leg has been long sold out at Hampstead, but is virtually certain to get a West End transfer, possibly to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where the auditorium is as grand as the ticket prices. With Benjamin Franklin carefully included in the cast of characters, it might well have a starry future in New York as well. Nell Gwynn's run at the Globe is all too short, though tickets are available. I hope the incoming Globe artistic director Emma Rice revives it in her programme for 2016. Apart from Swale and Howard Brenton, few modern-day playwrights have mastered the art of writing for the Globe's big open-air stage and exploiting the space it offers, so it would be a shame to see Christopher Luscombe's fizzy production, with its excellent music, costumes and dance, disappear for good.
Having found a two-volume period edition of Foote's plays in an antiquarian bookshop, I have been dipping into them. They are thoroughly conventional 18th century comedies about money and marriage, but it seems to me (though Ian Kelly disagrees) that they could well be worth reviving. If only Simon Russell Beale were available to play the parts that Foote wrote for himself, some of them might turn out to be very funny indeed.