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Habeas Corpus

Alan Bennett
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2011)

For the Octagon's final pre-festive offering of the year, artistic director David Thacker revives Alan Bennett's 1973 riotous comedy Habeas Corpus with a cast of eleven actors and a design straight off an old saucy seaside postcard.

Doctor Arthur Wicksteed's marriage to Muriel has become rather too celibate for Muriel's liking, and their hypochondriac son Dennis keeps finding new diseases he believes he is dying from. Arthur's dowdy sister Connie has been engaged for ten years to local vicar Canon Throbbing whose enthusiasm for their union isn't mutual, so she orders a device to increase the size of her chest to become more attractive to men. Meanwhile, Arthur tries it on with young female patient Felicity Rumpers, who has recently returned with her explorer mother, Lady Rumpers, from Addis Ababa, but Felicity becomes interested in Dennis when she believes he is dying.

There are some of the usual misunderstandings and revelations from the world of farce when the man from the breast enlargement company mistakes Muriel for her sister-in-law, Sir Percy Shorter of the General Medical Council catches Arthur interfering with Felicity in her underwear and lots of people lose their trousers.

The play feels like a young writer's attempt to be self-consciously radical and different and to send up older forms of theatre and comedy, even though Bennett reached the age of 40 during the play's original run. There are verse speeches that seem to be gesturing towards Shakespeare and some elements that are very close to Orton's What The Butler Saw but less clever and funny with quite a few genuinely funny lines thrown in, but it doesn't add up to anything substantial.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall has set the play in front of a row of brightly-coloured beach huts with a seaside promenade on a higher level behind them, which is certainly visually striking and provides plenty of doors for farce-like entrances and exits but has little to do with the actual setting of the play in a doctor's surgery. The doors slow down some of the very quick entrances and exits and comic asides—reminiscent of the American comedy TV show of the time Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In—killing some of the comic timing.

The one performance that really stands out is Margot Leicester as Muriel Wicksteed who throws herself totally into the comic silliness and gets more laughs than the underlying material deserves. Rob Edwards utilises his lovely rich voice to give Arthur's verse speaking the full RSC treatment, which brings a certain amount of nobility to the role. Colin Connor is great, as always, as Mr Shanks from the suppliers of the breast enhancement device, Brendan Quinn makes Dennis a suitably awful spotty youth and John Levitt is a fine Sir Percy Shorter. Many of the other actors create good characters but lack the comic sensibilities for the delivery and timing of the lines and comic business.

There are some laughs in this production and some decent performances, but I am not convinced that this is a play worth reviving at all. It feels like we are watching Bennett's hang-ups and neuroses from 1973 brought to life, and the way he attempts to deconstruct the traditional farce structure reduces the complexity of the plot to the extent that it is hard to care what happens to any of these cartoon characters and makes it far less funny than the types of plays it appears to be sneering at.

"Habeas Corpus" runs until 12th November

Reviewer: David Chadderton