Christopher Walker reviews Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett

The 1970’s were a strange decade, especially in English theatre.

A surfeit of sexual, and sexist, farces with endless jokes about bodily functions.

This trend climaxed in the 80s with “When did you last see your trousers?” There were few peaks and many troughs, saying a lot about our national decline.

This is all amply demonstrated by this revival of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus.

Alan Bennett is one of our most talented playwrights with great plays like A Question of Attribution, The Madness of George the III and Talking Heads to his name.

I’ve lost count of how many Olivier awards he has won. The History Boys got three alone.

Dan Starkey (Sir Percy), Kirsty Besterman (Constance Wicksteed), Matthew Cottle (Canon Throbbing) – by Manuel Harlan

Habeas Corpus is an early work and less well-known. One can see why. A farce where the humour is heavy-handed, it is hard to believe it is by the same author.

It originally premiered in London in 1973. The Broadway production the following year flopped, something Bennett always attributed to an overcomplicated set.

“There is just enough text to carry the performers on and off, provided they don’t dawdle.

If they have to negotiate doors or stairs or potted plants or get anywhere except into the wings, then they will be stranded halfway across the stage.”

The Director, Patrick Marber, obviously listened to Bennett, as the actors run on and off an almost empty set at great speed.

Fortunately, designer Richard Hudson may have been deprived of a complex set, but he does capture the seventies perfectly in his spot-on costumes.

One prop is obtrusive, however, a coffin – particularly unsettling in this time of pandemic.

Jasper Britton (Arthur Wicksteed), Abdul Salis (Mr Shanks) – by Manuel Harlan

As are the references to boosters and vaccinations, and the mocking of the President of the British Medical Association Sir Percy (Dan Starkey).

The phrase ‘Habeas Corpus’ refers to the ancient English law to prevent false imprisonment. Translated from medieval Latin it means “let them have the body.”

chooses this title as the characters trapped in his farce are all obsessed with the human body, whether their own or someone else’s.

Jasper Britton gives a convincing performance as the Hove GP, Arthur Wicksteed who struggles to keep his hands off his female patients while worrying about how much he has himself gone to seed.

He has long ago lost interest in his wife’s body (a manic Catherine Russell) and barely acknowledges the physical existence of his son (Thomas Josling), who’s own body is falling apart.

Other characters are very dated – this piece is lost in time. There is a sexually obsessed Cannon aptly named “Throbbing” (Matthew Cottle).

When did you last come across a Cannon in English society?

Ria Jones (Mrs Swabb) – by Manuel Harlan

He lusts after a flat-chested spinster (Kirsty Besterman) who eagerly straps on a pair of false boobs sold to her by salesman Abdul Salis. Did women ever do that? Salis of course loses his trousers.

Lady Rumpers (the very watchable Caroline Langrishe) is just back from the colonies and missing her servants, while her daughter Felicity (Katie Bernstein) is worried about being pregnant without being married.

Thankfully so many of these characters’ dilemmas are now lost in time.

The char lady Mrs. Swabb stands out as genuinely funny in the hands of the very talented Ria Jones. She makes up for not having Bennett who once played her himself.

You will come away from this piece realising just how annoying a decade the seventies was.

Part of our past best forgotten? If you are missing Carry-On comedies, it might interest you, especially if you are a sixty-year-old trapped in a six-year-old’s body.

For tickets go to –





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