Friday, 17 December 2021

Theatre review: Habeas Corpus

The Menier Chocolate Factory tends to feel like London's most conservative, if not most Conservative theatre, and as such some of its safe programming choices for a coffin-adjacent audience base can translate to disinterring creaky old farces that should have stayed buried in the 20th century. But if the farce in question is an early Alan Bennett play (early, I mean he was forty but these things are relative,) and it's directed by the prolific but usually reliable Patrick Marber, I'm prone to think it might be worth checking out anyway. Unfortunately both writer and director seem to have made a colossal error of judgement where Habeas Corpus is concerned: With a plot set in a doctor's surgery and an approach that tries to dig up the darker side of farce's obsession with sex, the play feels like it could be paying homage to Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw*. Except that play's genuinely sexy, shocking and funny.

It's hard to summarise the plots of farces, but in this case that's mostly because what Habeas Corpus has can hardly be called a plot: Dr Arthur Wickstead (Jasper Britton) and his wife Muriel (Catherine Russell) are pretty much bored of each other, he having had several affairs, she fantasising about having married her ex Sir Percy Shorter (Dan Starkey, who somehow looks more like a Sontaran when he isn't wearing the prosthetics,) now the president of the British Medical Association.

Their son Dennis (Thomas Josling) is a hypochondriac who thinks he's only got 3 months to live; unmarried and pregnant, Lady Felicity (Katie Bernstein) believes him, and thinks if she can get him to marry her she can quickly be a respectable widow. Also Arthur's flat-chested sister Constance (Kirsty Besterman) has ordered an enormous pair of fake boobs, so when Mr Shanks (Abdul Salis) arrives to do a fitting, there's the opportunity for a lot of misunderstandings that lead to him to grope the very real chests of all the other women, including Felicity's mother Lady Rumpers (Caroline Langrishe,) whom the script seems to keep forgetting about until she needs to provide another plot twist.

I know tastes change and what was acceptable and funny in 1973 can be neither now, but I'm at a loss to see what this was ever meant to achieve: There's a weariness both to the old-fashioned farce tropes of falling trousers and mistaken identity, and to the cast's valiant efforts to make anything of them. Beyond the running gags about a suicidal patient (Kelvin O'Mard) there's nothing particularly new or edgy here either. (Lady Rumpers is described as "a white settler" so maybe there was meant to be some kind of satire of imperialism here but it's not explored; maybe the play's vendetta against short people was shocking?) Randy clergyman Canon Throbbing (Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle) saying he probably fancies Constance because her flat chest reminds him of young boys is a joke that still works today, or would if he was the right denomination. In a role originally played by Bennett in drag, cleaning lady Mrs Swabb (Ria Jones,) is meant to be an audience surrogate/narrator, although she mainly gets in the way of the plot as much as she gets under the feet of the other characters.

Using the play's clumsy attempts to weave a thread of mortality through the sexual shenanigans as inspiration, Richard Hudson's abstract design has a coffin in the middle of the stage representing all the furniture; it elicits as much of a nonplussed response as anything else going on there. Apart from being a tediously joyless evening, the whole thing leaves me baffled as to what Bennett was trying to do in the first place. Orton deconstructed farce by stripping away the euphemisms around its nastier side; Michael Frayn by laying bare the technique behind it. Maybe, between the two, AB tried to do it by leaving out any attempt at comedy. The rest of the theatre trips I had booked for this year have all been cancelled; but the biggest disappointment this Christmas might be that this one went ahead.

Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett is booking until the 27th of February at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

*Marber has even cast two of the actors from the Curve Leicester's recent production

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