‘An Elegant Madness’: Beau Brummell, and a morality tale for our times

An Elegant MadnessThe year is 1819, the location is Calais – and Beau Brummell is in exile, having left England bankrupt and having fallen out with his former friend & patron, the Prince Regent.

If you aren’t familiar with the character of Beau Brummell, he really did exist, as do a number of stories and anecdotes about him; several films have been made about him, too. Born in 1778, the son of a politician, Brummell was known as the most stylish man of his day and is supposed to have introduced the modern day man’s suit, worn with a necktie; he claimed that it took him five hours every day to dress. To give you an idea of how much appearance – and luxury – mattered to him, he also claimed to polish his boots with champagne.

In this two-hander, entitled ‘An Elegant Madness’ and directed by Peter Craze, we find Brummell in the most pitiful of situations, living in an asylum and forced to wear dirty, torn clothes that are anathema to him. Lonely, and somewhat bitter, he is trying to decide whether to return to the “cesspit” which is England. With only his long-suffering valet, Austin, for company, Brummell looks back on the highs & lows of his life as he prepares for the arrival of King George IV on a state visit to France.

This is an entertaing and poignant two hours of theatre. Thanks to a moving performance by Sean Brosnan, you can’t help but feel for Brummell in his reduced circumstances, even if said circumstances are mostly self-inflicted. In addition, the chemistry between Brosnan and Richard Latham, who plays Austin, is strong and the way in which they bicker & banter is one of the highlights of the play.

You could also interpret the play as a morality play for our times. At one stage, Brummell is described as “famous for being famous”, and there is a definite undertone of “Be careful of what you wish for” to the dialogue and the acting. I wonder what Brummell would have made of reality TV and today’s obsession with celebrity? He would undoubtedly be pleased that, nearly 200 years after his death, he is still talked about – and, I am sure, delighted that a statue of him now resides in Jermyn Street, a street famous for its men’s tailors and elegant arcades. The fact that this production is taking place at Jermyn Street Theatre would surely be the icing on the cake.

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