While there are flashes of humour to be found in this revival, this dated play feels uncomfortable to watch.
I don’t mind comedy that pushes boundaries, that challenges and can occasionally make you wince – but Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus relies on the same joke (usually when it comes to women’s breasts or a character threatening to commit suicide) far too much to make this for an enjoyable evening.
A farce that is filled with over the top characters, Habeas Corpus is essentially a story in which the majority of the characters spend a lot of the time to seduce each other. This is led by Doctor Wicksteed whose pursuit of the newly arrived young lady Felicity (who is in a difficult situation) leads the story and then gradually builds to many misunderstandings, elsewhere his wife Muriel is in despair at his lack of affection for her and their awkward son Dennis doesn’t know how to deal with Felicity’s attentions. All of this is tied up by the perceptiveness of Mrs Swabb’s narration and who seems to be the most sensible character of them all.
On paper this does sound like a lot of fun – however, the uncomfortableness of Alan Bennett’s script and the many, many jokes at women’s expense doesn’t really fit in with attitudes in 2021. I don’t like sounding like a prude – but there is only so much ogling at women’s breasts, height jokes and jabs at a patient who threatens to commit suicide that can be taken in one show. It comes across as a sleazy 1970’s television show that has gone wrong.
To his credit, director Patrick Marber has delivered a sleekly put together production that has plenty of pace and energy throughout, while bringing together a really strong cast to try and lift the play. In particular, Ria Jones as Mrs Swabb lends a Julie Walters style to her character who tends to see things from a better perspective than the other characters – her sharp comedy timing is a real highlight. Elsewhere, Kirsty Besterman as Constance has a quiet charm about her as her loneliness and isolation are made clear except when she makes changes to try and boost her self-esteem in which she begins to blossom – she is one of the few characters who perhaps changes and develops effectively throughout the course of the play. Thomas Josling as Dennis is wonderfully awkward and comical and it would have been nice to see him used more.
While it is described by the Menier Chocolate Factory as ‘a filthy farce from a less enlightened age’, if this is the case it is even more bewildering that the theatre has chosen to revive this seriously dated play. Come for the performances but the play may leave some people feeling uncomfortable.
By Emma Clarendon
Habeas Corpus continues to play at the Menier Chocolate Factory until the 26th February 2022.