Beau Brummell – An elegant madness
Review By Rosalind Freeborn
“Who could have carried off being me, but me?” announced Beau Brummell to his manservant, Austin. “How can one be lonely with a looking-glass?”
“Cheval” Brummell barks to Austin who positions the full-length mirror so that the faded Englishman can review his tattered and worn clothing in the dusty reflection within a sordid room in Calais. The former dandy and leading light of London’s fashion scene of the early 1800s seems unaware of his miserable appearance, blinded by an image of self-adoration which blots out all reality.
We first meet Brummell sitting in his tin bath being attended to by Austin, his faithful valet (note the t is pronounced). He is preparing to dress in anticipation of being reunited with his old friend the Prince Regent.
Born to an affluent family, schooled at Eton, he became a confidante of the future King George IV and the toast of London. In his glory days Beau Brummell set fashion trends, was a fixture at society events. Furthermore he knew all the Lords and Ladies and could be seen at all the grandest salons. But he gambled away his fortune citing “the importance of losing well”. Then he consummated his downfall at a glittering ball by referring to the Prince Regent as a “fat friend”. He was dropped and subsequently banished to a life of penury in France.
There are parallels with the life of Oscar Wilde to be drawn. Ron Hutchinson conjures the life of an Icarus-like character who o’er stepped the mark. He peppers his play with a string of one-liners such as: “How can a man feel tragedy? Marriage is the closes he will get.” And “I once ate a pea and can’t say I would repeat the experiment.” Whilst these lines are amusing they don’t give great insight into character. So much so, I never felt that I understood the true character or motivation of Brummell. Was he as shallow as he is made out?
Seán Brosnan as Beau Brummell struts and frets around the stage, fussing at his clothing, head held high. His body rather sagging south, indulging in trance-like remembrance of his days at court or striding the streets of London. Sure in the knowledge that every detail of his appearance will reported and repeated by his dedicated fashion followers.
Richard Latham, his indifferent but briefly loyal valet flutters around like a moth to Brummell’s fading light. In addition to obligingly providing a glass – spit and rub the mirror first – the clothing, his shoes and even ties the stocks. Even the elaborate arrangement of neckerchief which needs careful tying for maximum frou-frou effect.
As a two-hander, the play provides sparky lines for both actors. Brosnan tended to remain in vocal groove channeling Margaret Thatcher. Complete with that imperious boom combined with a fixed stance and withering stare. There was little light and shade or nuance in the performance except for the brief moments of pathos when Brummell appeared to understand his broken existence. Then he would climb back on his metaphorical high horse and remain convinced that the purpose of the English King’s visit to Calais was to meet him.
Lewis, we discover, is staunch republican with a fevered distrust of authority or aristocracy. He spent time in prison and taught himself Latin and Greek. His allegiance to the faded Brummell runs its course; he sees that his master is a fantasist and a loser. Latham brings a lively energy to the character, much-needed in what would otherwise be a static production, and gives us a glimpse of a past life and inner grief which we don’t really glean from Brummell.
On press night some members of the audience were dressed magnificently in costumes from that period, fans a flutter, kiss curls in place and shiny boots and buttons gleaming. I can’t help wishing that some of that splendor could have been more apparent in the play.