Habeus Corpus by Alan Bennett. The Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 to 26 February 2022. 3***. William Russell

This 1973 farce has dated badly in that lots of what we are asked to laugh at is now considered not something to be laughed at. The trouble is we do laugh. Or at least the preview audience I saw this Patrick Marber production with did laugh and laughed loudly. Farce is heartless and Bennett has a fine old time sending up the traditions of the genre. Maybe it all smacks a little of Joe Orton – his What The Butler Saw preceded it by four years and is a playwright who arguably may too suffer when viewed by today’s woke folk. Marber has chosen to put it on a virtually empty stage with only a coffin centre stage for decoration whereas it does cry out for all the props of farce – doors to vanish through, windows to jump out of and has always been staged in those kind of sets. It has lots of choice roles and is a popular am dram piece for that reason. But ladies with flat chests seeking the perfect falsie and being turned into a lust object after acquiring a bust, except that the spinsterish vicar who lusts after her is not turned on – naturally he wonders if it is because she looked like a boy that he wanted her for his wife and randy doctors molesting their patients, a sex starved wife, a predatory blonde after anything in trousers are not really characters found funny now.
Since the Menier has scheduled it for a reasonable run one can only hope its audience disagrees with the woke folk. It gave me the same sort of sensation as I get while watching Benny Hill pursuing girls through the park and doing his comic routines. He is funny, they are funny but it all belongs to yesterday as, indeed, does much of what the two Ronnies get up to although so far they have retained their sacrosanct status as have the Carry On movies. It is a case of horses for courses perhaps/
Marber has assembled a good cast led by Jasper Britton as Dr Wicksteed, the Hove GP whose problems – annoying patients, sex starved wife, raging libido – set the whirligig in motion as people rush on and off while the inevitable comic maid – in this case Mrs Swabb, a charlady, played perfectly by Ria Jones, who comments on the folly of it all. Britton in the role originally played by Alec Guinness, conjures up the necessary fluster, Matthew Cottle as the spinsterish vicar matches him and Caroline Langrishe as the predatory blonde’s mother arrives like a bolt of lightning to cause confusion..
The reviews have been cool to say the least and one can see why. It was written in a very different time for a rather different audience, one which knew what to expect from farce and appreciated Bennett’s send up. I suspect performed in the kind of Hove villa set it was written for it might have seemed rather better – that empty stage does not help. But Marber keeps the pace going, the cast respond to the demands placed on them with energy and style. It may offend the woke but even if they leave feeling a little ashamed of themselves I suspect audiences will enjoy it as a guilty pleasure.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed: Jasper Britton.
Connie, his sister: Kirsty Besterman.
Felicity Rumpers: Katy Bernstein.
Canon Throbbing: Matthew Cottle.
Mrs Swabb: Ria Jones.
Denis Wicksteed: Thomias Josling.
Mrs Rumpers: Caroline Langrishe.
Mr Purdue: Kelvin O’Mord.
Muriel Wicksteed: Catherine Russell.
Mr Shanks: Abdul Salis.
Sir Percy Shorter: Dan Starkey.

Director: Patrick Marber.
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell.
Set & Costumes Designer: Richard Hudson.
Sound Dedsigner: Adam Cork.
Movement Director: Emily Jane Boyle.
Production Photograph: Emily Jane Boyle.

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