George Bryan Brummell made his name in the late 18th century by virtue of having an eye for the latest fashions. He was perhaps the first example of the modern celebrity, in that he became famous despite achieving nothing – so it’s him we can thank for the proliferation of Z-list ‘stars’ and their vacuous impact on society…
The European Arts Company’s play (written by Ron Hutchinson) picks up in the latter stages of Brummell’s life; he has fled England to escape debtors’ prison, and is living in Calais with only his valet, Austin, for company. The two-hour production takes us through some of his typical daily routines, whilst he and Austin reminisce about his glory days at Court in between episodes of Brummell’s increasing madness. Beau forever lives in hope of reconciliation with the former Prince Regent (then George IV), but this possibility could be threatened by Austin’s revolutionary fervour.
It is an interesting story to tell, as it’s clear he’s lived a life without substance but full of his own self-importance. However, the play is simply far too long. The same points seem to be laboured over again and again with decreasing effect. And, aside from getting some welcome fresh air after being cooped up in a stuffy auditorium, the interval is completely unnecessary. It would make much more of a statement if it were 80 minutes straight through – then moments of importance would become much more significant in the whole scheme of things. Beau is given some great one-liners (he was known to have a sharp wit) which at least provide some variety and entertainment value.
Helen Coyston’s set is packed full of the kind of period props you might expect: fabric on the wall, elegant chairs and a dressing screen. The tin bath is a good mark of Brummell’s poverty, as well as his commitment to personal standards. The lighting design (Duncan Hands) seems a little inconsistent, as some of Beau’s moment of nostalgia see him spotlit whereas others don’t.
It is a two-hander, with simply the two characters – any other people are either offstage or in Brummell’s imagination… The pair do well to try and make the material engaging. Richard Latham brings a gruffness to Austin, though he is not completely unfeeling. His extreme republicanism does seem to come out of nowhere and then escalate to an absurd level, however Latham’s comedic instinct gives this some entertainment value. Seán Brosnan captures Brummell’s snobbish air and unwavering commitment to his principles – and never fails to elicit laughter from the various one-liners.
My verdict? A play that needs to lose as much padding as the Prince Regent – but entertaining performances nonetheless.
Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 11 March 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.