The creative team and players behind Beau Brummell deserve our thanks for providing a rich insight into the ruthlessness and the riches of Regency England, which gets the balance right between development of characters, verbal display and historical accuracy. The play also alternates illuminatingly between investigating, satirising and respecting what Brummell was.
To be truly elegant one should not be noticed.
As you walk down Jermyn Street from St James’ towards the theatre you quickly realise that you are in Beau Brummell territory. Not only do you pass his statue, but all around you are shop fronts still displaying the acme of traditional classic male attire. Yet despite his reputation as the consummate, archetypal Regency dandy he is in many ways a figure difficult to know or categorise.
Created out of nowhere he vanished again into obscurity in the last years of his life. Though dandies are associated with show, Brummel’s great claim was to have created elegance through understatement and attention to finely cut and trimmed details. The first to say to men, – ‘less is more.’
In a sense his greatest achievement was the creation of the standard suit in black or blue, with waistcoat, white linen shirt and elaborate stock or tie, the impoverished ghosts of which still cross London Bridge on the way to work every day.
Parallels with Wilde are unhelpful: though a witty man, Brummell’s remarks go largely unrecorded and he left no published record of his life or any literary works. Nor was he by any clear evidence gay – so no iconic stereotype beckons there. His life has a tragic arc governed by a reckless courage in defying society both in his ascent and in his careless fall. He lost the favour of the Prince Regent who had raised him up and ensured a final irretrievable collapse through gambling debts that he could not sustain and from which his friends would not rescue him.
Any play that seeks to evoke his life and times faces lots of gaps to be filled with imagination and plausibility and a need to go beyond the glamorous surface to grasp, if possible, the elusive spirit of the man underneath. No mean task, but one that Ron Hutchinson’s play largely negotiates through focusing on an episode towards the end of the Beau’s life which provides the lead character with a natural window from which to look back on his career with a mixture of melancholy and bravado.
We meet Brummell on his uppers, both literally and metaphorically: in his hip-bath and relying on the charity of a convent in Calais, where he has taken refuge after his ‘social’ death in England. The occasion on which the minor plot matters turn is the visit of the Prince Regent to the city, where his carriage will pass in front of the very apartment where Brummell resides.
The Beau anticipates reconciliation, and thus much of the play is punctuated by his meticulous dressing to meet his former patron, so far as his reduced circumstances allow. It is left unclear how far these hopes and the memories they trigger are realistic or delusional.
But there are very much two people in this story. Austin, Brummell’s manservant, provides a chorus and contrast to his master’s backward-looking bons mots. Instead he articulates the ethos and views of the French Revolution, and the sceptical when not hostile attitude of a man from the lower tiers of society towards the froth and excess of its top layers.
This role is artfully constructed so that a gritty critique of what Brummell stands for is offered rather than a simple endorsement, and there are also plenty of opportunities for undercutting humour that evoke the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, or Leporello to Don Giovanni.
The success of a gentle and largely uneventful two-hander such as this depends particularly on the chemistry between the two players at its heart. Seán Brosnan (Brummell) and Richard Latham (Austin) are now settled into a regular performing groove with this piece, and mine its darker as well as comedic moments with skill.
In many ways you could compare the challenge of Beau Brummell to that of The Dresser: there is affection at its heart but together with large doses of deception and delusion, and a sense of the faded past omnipresent as a third character in the room. In a necessarily cluttered set, both players engender a lot of amusing physical business and vary the pace and tone of delivery skilfully so as to avoid monotony.
Both parts are equally weighted. Brosnan’s performance is necessarily the more showy: freighted with sharp put-downs and witty sayings that express the spirit of Brummell’s dependence on and rejection of social norms. In some ways he looks and sounds like the late Bryan Sewell, that defiant stylist of our own day. But the despair and gathering, other-worldly dementia of the character is also shadowed in very well alongside the more bravura displays.
Latham conveys menace and street-wise ruthlessness alongside compassion and irony. He also does a splendid job in tying Brummell’s elaborate silk stock, a fascinating confection in its own right that the bucks of Regency England lined up to watch in actual fact. One can see why.
The Jermyn Street theatre is not a large space but it has been artfully filled with significant items by designer Helen Coyston so as to give us both a general picture of poverty and degradation, but with hints of past style and taste.
Shabby wall hangings indicate a life gone to seed. Clothes of fine original material lie strewn around, threadbare and unwashed, across a screen, a settee and a washstand. A scatter of books and papers litter the floor and a balcony rail suggests the street view through which the Prince Regent will surely pass.
Beau Brummell is yet another play that does not deserve the interval inflicted on it in the cause of serving drinks and nibbles. Having established the characters and attuned the audience to the wan and acid tone of Brummell’s voice the integrity of the whole would be better served by a clear run to the finish line, while trimming a few minutes off the overall length.
Having said that, it was a pleasure to have the members of the Brummell Society, dressed in their period finery, mingling amongst the crowd at half-time, demonstrating the point that in general this was a much more stylish era for male attire than for women’s.
The creative team and players deserve our thanks for providing a rich insight into the ruthlessness and the riches of Regency England, which gets the balance right between development of characters, verbal display and historical accuracy. The play also alternates illuminatingly between investigating, satirising and respecting what Brummell was.
In any era, if your existence revolves around being seen, then it is inevitably precarious, a matter of ‘clinging to the iceberg’, where style and attitude are crucial. In an era of grand Romantic historical events we see here why to be the ‘Beethoven of snuff’ could, in its own way, be a triumph too.