You could not find a more suitable venue to stage the play Beau Brummell – an elegant madness, than the Jermyn Street Theatre. Jermyn Street and Beau Brummell are both synonymous with English fashion of the 1800s and onwards; Beau Brummell stands in statue form just along the street with the inscription “To be truly elegant one should not be noticed”.
In the Regency period, Brummell was a truly important influence upon male English fashion. He was intimate friends with the Prince Regent until he, in a moment of pique, turned his customary wit into an insult, and the words “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” cost Brummell his noble circles and ultimately led to his downfall. The play takes place in 1819, years after this comment was made, after Brummell has fled to Calais to escape his gambling debts, on the day when the formerly-spurned Prince, now King George IV, comes to Calais.
Brummell (played by Seán Brosnan) is in dire financial straits yet unable to lose the habits gained from his earlier life as a dandy and a wit. Austin (Richard Latham) is his scruffy valet, who still has to perform the tasks such as handing him his snuff (what little there is left) and his mirror, helping him dress. Then there are the more unusual tasks, such as distracting Brummell from shooting himself or colluding in his deluded, imaginary conversations with nobility. Austin is not a one-dimensional servant either: he speaks Latin, he has interesting money-making schemes, and he has other ideas about what he might do when he sees the King.
This is a two-hander, with the men on stage throughout the two acts, but it doesn’t get boring, and director Peter Craze builds up to the climax when the King parades the street below their balcony. We experience the intimate relationship of a man and his manservant, but with the glory days long in the past. There is both comedy and pathos in their manner towards each other, you feel they are equally irritated by each other yet cannot do without each other.
I could have enjoyed even more references to fashion, as Brummell’s witticisms on this subject are very funny, and these are at the very essence of Brummell’s celebrity – he is thought of as the first celebrity, famous just for being famous. My favourite bits are the moments when the spotlight turns orange, angels sing ethereally, and Brosnan reaches out his arms to feel his clothes as they are softly wrapped around him. I was almost entranced to watch the elaborate tying of the white laundered ‘stock’ (the form of cravat) around the neck which he finishes himself with a precise flourish.
Brosnan has the perfect demeanour and expression to play this narcissist yet, as he pines for his youth, we do feel compassion for him in his ‘elegant madness’. When Latham as Austin challenges him for enjoying his own appearance more than, for example, a sonata by Bach, he puts it quite poignantly, ‘Who did I harm except myself?’
By Hatty Uwanogho