Beau Brummell: An Elegant Madness, by Ron Hutchinson
Jermyn Street Theatre until 11 March
2 hours 10 minutes, including interval.
Review: Tom Aitken 14 February
This will grow in strength in performance.
When this apparently simple but in some ways rather complex two-hander has played itself in, it is likely to be a funny, socially complex and sometimes violent (both physically and emotionally) account of the social differences of the two protagonists, as well as a backstage picture of some of the attractions and hostilities which shaped regency England.
Just as the two of them sometimes like each other (almost) and sometimes hate each other (for reasons which they almost immediately find inadequate), they do so because they lived in a time that was shaped by its chaotic mixture of social, intellectual and sexual attitudes.
As the historian Roy Porter remarks of that time, ‘Local styles sometimes rose to national importance, as in chinaware… Gothick tales of victims and horror… turned into a craze. In time originality in art and appearance, traditionally condemned as pretentious vanity, found an eager audience. Novelty could even be hallowed as an expression of the English birthright of liberty… The 1770s saw gargantuan headpieces for women and macaroni styles for men.’
In their different ways Beau Brummel and his manservant Austin both embody elements of this wild attempt to be someone outstanding.
All of this was visible in the press night performance, but, to some extent, ‘through a glass, darkly’.
Brummell has been taken into care in a Calais convent. Outside, the Prince Regent is passing by. Brummell, now very much an ageing man, a scarecrow whose once stylish clothing is, like the man himself, tatty and unkempt. He has, apparently, an idea of presenting himself to his former associate, but, as he realises, fortunately never quite gets to do it.
The second act portrays both men showing rather more clear-eyed awareness of their situation – which is why, thankfully, we are spared the sight of Beau being snubbed by the Prince.
As he is trying, in the privacy of the convent, to make himself worthy of a venture back into the world he once inhabited, Beau tells Austin
apropos the Prince, ‘I first met him when we were at Eton, you know…’
That ‘you know’ somehow sums up Brummel’s desperation. Austin is unlikely either to care or be impressed. And Brummell knows it.
But although the two men spend much of their time together bitching at each other (and their violent words sometimes give way to gestures towards more physical violence) the root of their problem is fear of loneliness.
I feel reasonably confident that when both actors have played themselves more completely into their roles the play will be more consistently moving and illuminating.
Beau Brummell: Seán Brosnan
Austin: Richard Latham
Director: Peter Craze
Designer: Helen Coyston Lighting: Duncan Hands