Here’s another show that’s been a long time a-coming. I booked to see Patrick Marber’s new production of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus back in March 2020, roughly the weekend before Lockdown 1.0 kicked in. Fortunately those nice people at the Menier were very diligent about making sure I got the same seats I originally booked, now that the production has finally come to light and I must say the staff at the Menier have been brilliant with their customer care during this period. Hats off to you!
Habeas Corpus first opened at the Lyric Theatre in May 1973 with a most enviable cast: Alec Guinness, Margaret Courtenay, Phyllida Law, Patricia Hayes, Joan Sanderson, Madeline Smith, Andrew Sachs, John Bird to name but eight; each one a master/mistress of stage comedy. Patrick Marber’s new production also gets excellent comedy skills out of his cast which really keeps the pace of this play going – but more of the cast later.
May 1973. There’s a Girl in my Soup was just ending its seven year run, No Sex Please We’re British was two years into its extraordinary sixteen year run. The sauciness of Ray Cooney was all the rage. The strapline to this production reads “a filthy farce from a less enlightened age”. From the moment Dr Wicksteed flamboyantly whips off his surgical mask, you know you have been transported back from relatively careworn 2022 to relatively carefree 1973 (the three-day week hadn’t kicked in yet). Perhaps it also symbolises the removal of the mask where it comes to relationships – no more decorum, let’s play it real and dirty. According to the programme, Alan Bennett wrote the play as “an attempt to write farce without the paraphernalia of farce – hiding places, multiple exits and umpteen doors”. As such it is pretty successful. The uncluttered stage at the Menier indeed has no doors, although it does have one hiding place – behind the coffin, that ostentatiously sits in the centre of the stage throughout the whole performance without any member of the cast realising there’s a coffin among them. I can only presume it’s another symbol – of everyone’s eventual death; and that maybe it’s the spur for everyone to get as much sexual shenanigans going as they can before the Grim Reaper steps in. A re-invention of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music song The Miller’s Son for repressed fifty-somethings, perhaps.
And eventually the coffin does get used for something other than a makeshift bed or table, as it opens ceremoniously at the end of the play to welcome the philandering GP Arthur Wicksteed to his eternal rest. Faithful to the original Bennett, we see Arthur dancing furiously to save his life, and the scene does create a fitting bookend to the beginning of the play, where Arthur confides in us that he spends his whole time as a doctor telling his patients they’re going to live – when in fact they’re not.
Ah yes – confiding. That’s how this whole play is structured. Most of the time the characters are breaking the fourth wall and confiding in us, serially delivering asides in our direction. Their interaction with each other is comedy pantomime, but the truth is largely only shared directly with the audience. At first this is a very amusing convention, with cleaning lady Mrs Swabb acting as a game-show host introducing the characters, discussing their ages and hobbies; blink and you could be watching Double Your Money or Take Your Pick. But after a while, I really tired of this approach, although the characters definitely don’t! Bennett plunges us into a surreal world populated with people who are either not getting any sex, not getting enough sex or not getting the sex they want. During the course of the play, people change partners, get caught out, are confronted with reality; past sins catch up with them, future hopes are dashed. It’s a stark and unglossy view of life and love, and at the end, the outlook is bleak for everyone. For a sex comedy, this is a pretty surreal one.
Sex comedies. They don’t write them anymore. New farces are also few and far between, and it’s fascinating that they are currently so out of favour; they worked so well for the likes of George Feydeau, Ben Travers and Brian Rix. So when you see a play like Habeas Corpus it really stops you in your tracks. Was it really “a less enlightened age”? It made me wonder if it was possibly more enlightened in some ways. There is nothing (nearly nothing) about Habeas Corpus that is remotely offensive, and none of its subject matter comes close to anything in the works of Joe Orton, for example. Sure, it’s all about sex and death, but then, isn’t Hamlet? If anything, looking back on a hit sex comedy from fifty years ago makes you realise that actually they weren’t that daring or that un-PC after all; if anything, you rather hoped it might be more outrageous.
The funniest – and probably filthiest – scene is where the doctor’s wife is mistaken for his sister; the latter has invested in some false boobs to make her look sexier and is visited by the man from Leatherhead who ensures (naturally) they have been properly fitted. Unfortunately he is (erroneously) extremely impressed by the doctor’s wife’s chesty presence and feels her up (to her delight) albeit with purely academic interest. Naturally the man from Leatherhead spends the rest of the play in his underpants, because – well, why wouldn’t you? The double-joke is that whilst the wife is turned on by the boob-fondling fitter, he’s only doing it from a purely professional point of view and has no interest in any subsequent sexual advances. Of course, the randy woman/meek man comedy combination is frequently the source of comedy gold – think George and Mildred, or Victoria Wood’s song about Freda and Barry. It’s timeless.
Timeless; but nevertheless there is something about this production that doesn’t work for me, and feels strangely irrelevant to life in the 2020s. Certainly one aspect is that today we don’t look on someone trying to hang themselves as a source of humour. That difference is very stark, and you feel very uncomfortable when presented with it on stage to laugh at. I also think the central figure of the cleaning lady, constantly commenting on the action, feels very much of a bygone era; that type of role was more or less killed off with the appearance of Dotty Otley/Mrs Clackett in Noises Off, or, again citing Victoria Wood, Mrs Overall. And then, you’ve got all those very artificial asides, which really do wear you down after a while!
Despite all these niggles, it is still an entertaining and enjoyable show. It uses 70s pop music to great effect – I ended up singing Sweet’s Wig Wam Bam to myself for the rest of the day and I’ll never think of Hocus Pocus by Focus in the same way ever again. There’s an excellent central performance by Jasper Britton as Wicksteed, revealing his sexual peccadillos to us whilst concealing them from everyone else on stage; it’s a performance full of energy and impishness. Catherine Russell is also excellent as his wife Muriel, channelling her inner Patricia Routledge (there’s a lot of Hyacinth Bouquet and Kitty in there) with a frostiness that gives way to sheer sensual pleasure. Ria Jones, in her straight play debut, brings a huge amount of character to Mrs Swabb, a slave to her Hoover.
Dan Starkey is brilliant as the pompous and bossy Sir Percy, fighting his short-man syndrome, Matthew Cottle perfect as the frustrated and not terribly forgiving Canon Throbbing, and there’s an excellent supporting performance by Abdul Salis as Shanks, the man from Leatherhead, horrified at being used as a sex object. But everyone puts in a very good performance and keeps the show moving at a cracking pace. It’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see a comedy like this, firmly from a different era, but in a modern context; it informs our understanding of its own time better than it does of our current times; but, let’s face it, nostalgia is always irresistible!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
P. S. Tomorrow, it’s the Eleventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards! Exciting – will your favourites be amongst the winners?