THE BLOG
09/29/2015 05:34 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

First Nighter: Simon Russell Beale and Other London Come-Ons

LONDON--Though Samuel Foote is not remembered today and therefore another instance in the annals of the millions once famous and now forgotten, he was celebrated in 18th-century London as a wit as well as an actor. Though an Oxford undergraduate and debtors prison inmate three times before he was 25, he eventually hied himself to the big city and palled around with, among esteemed others, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson and, during his years in England, Benjamin Franklin.

Not long ago the actor and writer Ian Kelly took a retroactive shine to Foote and wrote Mr Foote's Other Leg (winner of the Theatre Book of the Year 2013 and a must-read). Now he's adapted a segment of the volume as a play under the same name. ("Mr" without a period is rendered here according to British style.) He's prepped it as a vehicle for the always remarkable Simon Russell Beale and, tangentially, for himself in the small but certainly noticeable Prince George (later George III) role.

As the first act unfolds, it seems as if Kelly intends this Mr Foote's Other Leg as a mild entertainment wherein the quick-with-a-bon-mot Foote--he refers to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy as "nine volumes in search of a joke"--interacts amiably with praised actress Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), respected surgeon John Hunter (Forbes Masson), fellow thespian Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton), black retainer Frank Barber (Micah Balfour), housekeeper Mrs. Garner (Jenny Galloway), Garrick (Joseph Millson), Franklin (Stinton again) and Prince George.

The mood changes drastically as the act ends with Foote's suffering an on-stage accident that requires amputation of his left leg--a diagnosis that surgeon Hunter makes quite speedily. (Nonetheless, there you have the title's origin). The amputation having set up the second act, what ensues is darker--with the not unusual revelation that a well-honed wit is frequently shielding profound discontent. It also sets up an opportunity for Foote, Garrick and Woffington to present a pun-filled theater skit about the lost limb.

The amputation and its consequences become the kind of meaty material that's a full course meal for Russell Beale, who delves unrelentingly into Foote's discontent and often while wearing full 18th-century female drag. Compounding Foote's despair is Woffington's early death and an unwise advance he makes toward loyal attendant Frank. (It's not only Foote's tongue that's has had him often mentioned as an Oscar Wilde precursor.)

At all of this Russell Beale is increasingly moving, and the supporting players, whom Richard Eyre has directed with his standard high quality, manifest the proper 1800s polish in Tim Hatley's atmospheric set and in his eye-popping costumes. As Foote himself might have been inspired to comment, Kelly's project deserves to develop legs.
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The term "story theater," which was thrown around a good deal 40 and 50 years ago, has fallen into disuse, but the techniques it stood for live on. They surely do in Sally Cookson's lively and thorough Jane Eyre stage adaptation by the Bristol Old Vic in collaboration with the National Theatre, and now at the National's Lyttelton. (International HD screenings commence December 8. Check ntlive.com)

Declaring in a program note that she wanted to avoid a treatment becoming "a piece of costume drama," Cookson had set designer Michael Vale construct something resembling a jungle gym, around which the cast members march and quite often climb steps and ladders--mount then too often some observers might contend without encountering heated arguments from others.

From the moment Jane Eyre (Madeleine Worrall) is born and emits a series of harsh wails, Cookson follows her progress as taken in by St. John Reed (Laura Elphinstone) and his Mrs. (Maggie Tagney) through her consignment to Lowood school and the cruel Mr. Brocklehurst (Craig Edwards), to Thornfield and the conflicted Rochester (Felix Hayes) and through the rest of the beloved story of the maltreated young girl's rise to happiness. Cookson keeps things hopping and the actors doubling and tripling as Bronte's memorable characters.

She also keeps things tuneful with musicians (piano, bass, drums) Benji Bower, Will Bower and Phil King supplying all but nonstop underscoring and Melanie Marshall--eventually representing Rochester's sequestered wife Bertha Mason--appearing regularly in a red-satin gown to sing threnodies obliquely coincident with the novel's themes.

At one point to indicate Jane's increasing infatuation with her boss--who's one of literature's foremost brooders, of course--Marshall gives a full-throated rendition of Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy." This seems gratuitous, as does Rochester's emitting a four-letter obscenity when he falls off his horse at first sighting Jane. (Would Charlotte Bronte have even known the word?) There's also an abundance of ensemble running in place to suggest travel, and that gets old, too.

Nevertheless, the players--the accomplished Worrall and Hayes leading them--are full of vim and vigor as Cookson goes about her program-stated aim of proving Jane Eyre isn't only a 19th-century romance but a work about a woman striving to be recognized as equal in a male-dominated society. She's right, but she has still fashioned an appealingly hyper-theatrical love story.
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Richard II, at the Globe, is an effective and affecting realization by director Simon Godwin, of William Shakespeare's history about the intelligent but arrogant monarch (Charles Edwards) who brings on his dethroning and eventual demise by alienating the wrong cousin, young Bolingbroke (David Sturzaker), in the slander contretemps between him and Mowbray (Oliver Boot).

For this production designer Paul Wills has gilt-drenched the Globe's stage, while the cast gives sterling accounts of Shakespeare's conniving figures. Edwards is able to make Richard sympathetic despite the king's assumption that, simply by divine right, he's due unquestioned obeisance. Edwards's is a steady arc from earthly god to condemned nobody.

Perhaps the other gem here is William Gaunt as--get this--John of Gaunt. Can it be that his surname alone triggers such mastery of the old man's famous death scene and its deathless speech about "this England"? And that's only one of the sumptuous speeches not often outdone elsewhere in Shakespeare canon. Here, they're all honored in the playing.
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Patrick Marber has adapted and directed A Month in the Country, Ivan Turgenev's most renowned play, as Three Days in the Country, at the National's Lyttelton, in a Sonia Friedman co-production. It's a crisp, often clipped and wholly lucid version of the melancholy comedy in which several lovers are so star-crossed they're practically cross-eyed.

Yet as well done as it is, there's something about it that feels undercooked. The lack may involve Marber's decision to have the cast members return to chairs in full sight of the audience when they're not appearing in scenes. There they sit, giving the unmistakable impression they're actors waiting for a cue. The result is that the full-throttle passion Turgenev demands dissipates on Mark Thompson's somewhat abstract set. There are times when the characters decidedly lose their temper with one another, but their despair doesn't seem to come from deep enough in them.

Still, Amanda Drew as the longing Natalya at the center of this charged country idyll has her many moments, and so do John Simm as frustrated family friend Rakitin, Lily Sacofsky as ward Vera and Royce Pierreson as the young tutor after whom Natalya and Vera are panting.

Perhaps best are Mark Gatiss as no-nonsense Doctor Shpigelsky and Debra Gillett as equally no-nonsense Lizaveta, Natalya's companion. Since those characters are calculatedly dispassionate, Gatiss and Gillett nail the hilarious second-act scene in which Shpigelsky proposes unromantically and Gillett, taking notes, thinks the offer over.

When the transparent scrim is raised at the play's start, Natalya's son Kolya (played alternately by Tom Burgering, Joshua Gringras or Joel Thomas) is spotlighted, and he figures in the fade-out as well. Marber's point? Most likely, he's calling attention to the effect the adult shenanigans inevitably have on young eyes and ears. If he wants it that way, sure.