‘The pain of celebrity’: Ian Kelly on Mr Foote’s Other Leg

Kelly, Ian credit Sasha Damianovsky Ian Kelly wrote an award-winning biography of the once-notorious eighteenth-century comedian, Samuel Foote. Now he’s acting in his own stage version of the story alongside Simon Russell Beale in a sold-out production directed by Richard Eyre. Here he explains why his one-legged protagonist, who rose to fame and celebrity only to be toppled in a sensational trial, was such a compelling figure to his contemporaries, and is so clearly recognisable in our own era of troubled celebrities.

Samuel Foote holds an intriguing place in our collective history, not just the theatre’s. Why should a man once famous enough to be represented by a simple icon – a foot – be forgotten now? It’s a question that both my original book and the play seek to explain. A coiner of comedies for one-legged actors and the original celebrity-impressionist, Foote must take some of the responsibility for his own obscurity. Added to this, Foote’s famous name became a whispered one in the immediate aftermath of the trial for buggery that ended his career. Neither, it should be said, are his plays very stageworthy any more. His thirty-odd comedy ‘afterpieces’ relied heavily on topical jokes and the inwit of a celebrity-impressionist, and only a few remained popular into the nineteenth century. If his ribaldry sings out still in the names of his creations – Sir Archy McSarcasm, the priapic Harry Humper or one-legged Sir Luke Limp – their lines, regrettably, now ring hollow. To me anyway. There are many real Foote lines in the play, but they are generally not from his plays.

Samuel Foote, portrait by Jean-François Gilles Colson

Samuel Foote, portrait by Jean-François Gilles Colson

The play, like the book, is instead an attempted exploration of mid-eighteenth-century London’s fascination with the theatre, viewed from the unique vantage point of a troubled, one-legged master of ceremonies, a man of breathtakingly catholic experience and larrikin wit; a tale told by an actor. How Samuel Foote lost his leg and thereby gained a royal licence for a theatre – one of only three such Theatres Royal in the whole history of the London stage – is one subject of the play. How a man of such singular anatomy could be at the centre of one of the most sensational buggery trials in British history – a subject of hilarious conjecture at the time, wiping the American Declaration of Independence off the London papers for many months – turns out to be a story less of perplexing balance than of shocking brutality and prejudice.

But it is also the story of a comic, and the play even more than the book seeks to reflect that, and pay tribute to Foote with the sound he most favoured in his theatre, that of laughter. Foote’s story has, of course, some resonance with the scandal that ended Oscar Wilde’s career: his fame, personality and tragic trajectory illuminating uncomfortable truths about his era, and his posthumous allure inextricably linked to his downfall. But it is the question of why Londoners should turn their attention to scandal, celebrity and laughter through 1776, when they might have paid closer attention to events in America, that also fascinates, as well as forging both backdrop and cacophonous noises-off to Foote’s tragicomedy. Appropriately enough then this is the story also of the man who seemingly coined the phrase ‘Tea Party’ – a rallying cry at Boston harbour in 1773 – though Foote used it as an irreverent circumvention of the London censors: he sold tickets for tea, and added a scurrilous satire on the side. So now, finally, he is having the last laugh, as the unexpected godfather of an American reactionary movement, which, given his other reputation as sexual deviant and reckless transvestite satirist, would surely give him cause to smirk.

Mr Foote's Other Leg at Hampstead Theatre. Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote), Ian Kelly (Prince George), Jenny Galloway (Mrs Garner), Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington), Joseph Millson (David Garrick) and Micah Balfour (Frank Barber) © Nobby Clark

Mr Foote’s Other Leg at Hampstead Theatre. Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote), Ian Kelly (Prince George), Jenny Galloway (Mrs Garner), Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington), Joseph Millson (David Garrick) and Micah Balfour (Frank Barber). Photo © Nobby Clark

From his Westminster grave, Foote may or may not relish his reputation as a sort of gay martyr. Only here and there, in his attacks on Methodism, nabobs and the medical establishment, did his comedy pack political punch, and it would be wildly anachronistic to have him enunciate a fully modern understanding of sexual tolerance or (trans) gender politics. And yet his triumphs, though personal, are not without their political significance. Whatever the odds stacked against him, and there were many even before the amputation and its effect upon his mental health, Foote turned things to his own account and to comedy. His daring, his refusal to bow to convention and to domestic or artistic safety, make him still commanding of our attention.

More than this, both book and play represent an exploration of Samuel Foote the ‘celebrity’ in an age and in a city where the idea, it is argued, originates. Spectators in Georgian London became enchanted with performers: Peg Woffington and Kitty Clive, Garrick and Foote, all of them painted by the new celebrity portraitists and all of them beginning to manipulate anecdotes about their private lives that helped create an aura of availability, not just sexual, allowing audience and readership a fantastical journey into imagined lives. Samuel Foote launched himself with a tale of horrific murder from the unique position of a family member [he wrote and published a sensational account of the murder of one of his uncles, baronet Sir John Dineley Goodere, 2nd Baronet, by another uncle, Captain Samuel Goodere]. People thought they knew him because they knew of him, even before they saw him on stage.

Joseph Millson (David Garrick), Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote) and Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington) © Nobby Clark

Joseph Millson (David Garrick), Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote) and Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington). Photo © Nobby Clark

The loss of his leg, and the projection therefore of a despoiled masculinity, as a limping icon of pain and accident – two key ingredients in comedy – made him all the more fascinating as a star, caught, as it were, in the act of falling. Finally there was the scandal-palled demise, when, for reasons possibly related to his mental health, he pushed too hard against the establishment, or picked, in Elizabeth Chudleigh and ‘Roger’ Sangster, the wrong foes, and became an object of widespread opprobrium and, for some, ‘the opposite of a man’. If anything is instantly recognisable in the story of Sam Foote, it is the creation of the modern trope of the celebrity destroyed, the star trammeled in the mud, who then, ideally, has some comeback either in life, or after death – though Foote, of course, did not. For some, the attacks upon a famous actor, with charges of homosexuality and of sexual assault, make Foote a sort of martyr irrespective of the veracity of either ‘charge’. For us still, in thrall to the evolving culture of the famous, he is uniquely placed in the tragicomic business of stardom and at its birth: a body of evidence, in and of himself, that we are as drawn to the pain of celebrity as to its glister.


Formatted

Extracted from the Introduction to the published playscript of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, £9.99 paperback, available now from Nick Hern Books for just £7.99 plus postage and packing.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is in production at Hampstead Theatre until 17 October.

Author photo © Sasha Damianovsky.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 2: The Final Reckoning

1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]The Edinburgh Fringe is over for another year, but how did our intrepid amateur companies get on performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books? We hear from three of them as they recount the highs – and the lows – of mounting a production on the Fringe. (If you missed the first instalment, it’s available here).

pp posterPassing Places by Stephen Greenhorn
Great Child Productions

The fringe is an experience like no other.

3,314 shows competing for an audience over the 313 venues. It is a challenge to sell a show, regardless of whether you have a ‘name’ or a recognisable brand. So the process of promoting the show throughout the day to the throngs of potential audience members is tough.

With a show like Passing Places there is no issue with staying motivated. Our team came up with some fantastic ways to promote the show, including going out in character onto the famous Royal Mile to help tourists cross the busy road.

Passing Places cast members Andrew Dart, Ciaran Drysder and Brodie Cummins on the Royal Mile

Passing Places cast members Andrew Dart, Ciaran Drysder and Brodie Cummins on the Royal Mile

The show got respectable audiences each night of our six-night run and a decent 3★ review from the Edinburgh Guide.

We were lucky enough to be warmly welcomed by our wonderful venue, Greenside @ Nicolson Square. The venue’s staff and techs were monumental in helping us deliver every element of our production, particularly the Citroën Saxo which sat on stage throughout the performance. With a 10-minute get-in before each show, and a 20-minute get-out afterwards, it was no mean feat to assemble a car and full set within our slot. Staying to time was key, so it was crucial that everyone played their part to the full.

Director Tom Sergeant and castLiving together for a week, promoting a show and putting it on is an intense and draining experience, but I wouldn’t change anything about it at all. I’d fully recommend it to any theatre group thinking about broadening their horizons and exploring new audiences.

– Tom Sergeant, CEO of Great Child Productions


ff-posterprintresFoxfinder by Dawn King
Master of None

When performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, August can seem like both the longest and shortest month of the year. It’s weird. After the amount of planning that goes into a show (our own preparations for #EdFringe2015 began in 2014), it sometimes feels like you’ll never stop working on it.

However, 1st September sneaks up very quickly; it always seems premature (no matter how exhausted you or your company may be). This was certainly true this year. Despite having spent over a month rehearsing and performing in Scotland’s capital, we felt that we were interrupted mid-stride by the Fringe ending.

Promoting Foxfinder on the Royal Mile

Promoting Foxfinder on the Royal Mile

We’d had a hell of a month, though. Highs included receiving five-star reviews, climbing Arthur’s Seat, and our end-of-run party; lows involved some prop-based mishaps (our dead rabbits went missing in a smoking area one grizzly Wednesday evening), and being told to get a job while pitching the show on the Royal Mile. On a Tuesday morning. At 11am. By a man who wasn’t working either. And anyway, we were working extremely hard!

Foxfinder, with a running time of 90 minutes, is a big beast to perform, and we were competing with over 3,300 other shows for an audience.

Phil Jupitus lends a hand

Phil Jupitus lends a hand

In terms of generating audiences, though, we were fortunate to be working with an award-winning script already known to many; we had a strong base on which to build our production. We’re in no doubt that Foxfinder’s reputation was a great starting point for our marketing campaign, and contributed incalculably to the success of the production – as one reviewer stated, ‘The power of Dawn King’s script has already been recognised’. Putting our own stamp on it was another matter, but I think that,  ultimately, we succeeded.

The same reviewer went on, ‘theatre company Master of None add an exceptionally strong performance, and a haunting visual style. 5★’

– Hugo Nicholson, producer & cast member

Foxfinder Banner


PentagonForever House by Glenn Waldron
Pentagon Theatre

Well, we are all done!

Twelve amazing performances later and we have to say goodbye to this wonderful city and an awesome festival! Both cast and crew have really enjoyed bringing Forever House to life, and the feedback we received, both in person and on social media, was fantastic! All the hours of rehearsals, the workshops, trips and expenses have been more than worth it. And a massive thank you to ‘Phil’ – whoever you are – for our first 5-star audience review!

Transporting the set for Forever House through Edinburgh

Transporting the set for Forever House through Edinburgh

A demanding show like this was bound to have the odd hiccup or two. Our particular favourite is probably having to carry our red sofa along the Royal Mile and across town to complete our get-in on time! It’s fair to say it attracted a few odd glances!

Furniture seemed to be a recurring issue throughout the process: the production team had to stop itself laughing when our cupboard decided to fall apart during one of the performances! So huge thanks must go to our production team – I honestly don’t know what we would have done without Roisin and Claire. Staying up until 3am every night, sticking reviews to flyers, cleaning the apartment, fixing cupboard doors… there was an endless list of jobs, and our team always had it covered.

Cast and crew with author Glenn Waldron

Cast and crew with author Glenn Waldron (centre)

Forever House is such a clever play, both in that it maintains a simple structure, and yet says a lot about what identity means to people and the importance of ‘belonging’. All the actors worked incredibly hard to bring something fresh and new to each performance, always coming to myself or Freddie (my co-director) to ask how they could improve or what they could work on individually. The beauty of this play is that the awkwardness of its characters comes across so naturally, and a lot of our audience feedback reflected how much work had been put in by all of our cast.

The playwright, Glenn Waldron, who was incredibly helpful throughout the process, was kind enough to come and see our final performance in Edinburgh. It was lovely to hear how much he enjoyed our interpretation of his play, and he took the time to congratulate everyone involved. Forever House is a play we remain very attached to, and we will be keeping our eyes peeled for Glenn’s upcoming work. Working with Pentagon Theatre has been an absolute joy, and it has been a pleasure to direct this little gem of a piece.

– James Bowen, co-director


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