For theatre history fans, United Players’ presentation of Mr. Foote’s Other Leg, written by Ian Kelly, will seem a godsend. Based on the real-life story of the titular Samuel Foote, the play is filled with in-jokes, puns, and the dry, rapid wit that has become a staple of so many British comedies.
The action of the play follows Foote (Kazz Leskard) as he rises to infamy among the Georgian theatre scene. Captivating audiences with his brand of irreverent satire, Foote both enthralls and appalls everyone around him, from the serious-minded David Garrick (Francis Winter) to King George himself (Joel Garner). However, eventually his frivolity starts to catch up to him. A bet gone awry leaves Foote without a leg to stand on, and he must ask himself whether laughter is truly enough to survive both the unforgiving gaze of London society, and his own personal turmoil.
It’s a strong cast, and the play clips along at a breakneck pace. Wordy witticisms are delivered with relentless speed, and elicit many a good-natured chuckle. The pacing can be a double-edged sword, however; scenes that should be met with uproarious laughter fall somewhat flat, as the players race to the next punchline. The erudite nature of the humour is also a challenge. Clever references and wordplay may be lost on younger audience members, who are less versed in 18th century British arts history.
The actors find more emotion and heart in the second act, and this allows for some truly wonderful performances. Leskard as Foote is delightfully obnoxious, a chimeric combination of a fop and a rake. He brings a heart and passion to the character that helps to raise the character’s humour from mere patter to a necessary survival tactic. Shining just as bright is Elizabeth Willow as Peg Woffington, an Irish actress with a can-do attitude. She and Leskard share great chemistry, both bickering on the Haymarket Stage, and comforting each other backstage. Garner is wonderfully obtuse as the young King George, and Bethany Stanley steals her fair share of scenes as the fiery stage manager. Offering boyish optimism as Foote’s recently liberated footman, Frank Barber, is Russell Zishiri, who helps bring much-needed gravity to the more frivolous moments of the play.
For a play that bills itself as shocking to the point of obscenity, it is handled with remarkable restraint. At times, one wonders what opportunities are being missed, with potentially controversial scenes (such as two white actors arguing in full Othello makeup before a horrified Barber) being watered down to the point where they lose all sense of scandal. Indeed, the potential for extremes often goes unchecked, and even the onstage amputation of Foote’s leg seems somewhat underdone. However, while the comedy may be tame, director Sarah Rodgers has not pulled any emotional punches. The second act is rife with intensity from beginning to end, as Foote begins to lose control over his mind and body, and begins to isolate himself from those around him.
From a production standpoint, the play is a wonderful spectacle. Brian Ball’s whimsically warped set is a perfect backdrop for a whole host of bizarre and inventive props created by Linda Begg, including phrenology machines, Georgian wheelchairs, and mummified phalluses. The lighting design (Darren W. Hales) fills the stage with clarity and deliberation, under which the tailored waistcoats and frocks (Catherine E. Carr) dazzle and delight. Topping it off are two live musicians (Aidan Wright and Shona Struthers), who provide practical sound effects as well as an interminable amount of Handel, much to the repeated annoyance of the characters onstage.
Much like the titular character, Mr. Foote’s Other Leg is slightly lopsided, but has a lot of heart. While it may stumble in its attempt to bring the hilarity of 18th century London to a modern audience, it will sweep you off your feet with the power and passion of the concluding act. Ultimately, if there’s one thing to learn from this production, it’s that one can still produce a stand-up act, even with some vital missing pieces.
Mr. Foote’s Other Leg runs from September 1-24 at the Jericho Arts Centre.
Tickets: $12 – $26| Location: Jericho Arts Centre | Website
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