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The Boy Friend

Habeas Corpus (Bath & tour)

By • West End
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It may have seemed on paper a winner to revive this 1973 Alan Bennett farce, given the rapture which has greeted The History Boys on both sides of the Pond. But, in reality, seeing the poor thing in the spotlight today, trousers around its ankles, clutching a pair of prosthetic breasts, it proves very much otherwise.

And the issue, to paraphrase Dr Johnson, is not whether the thing is done well or not, but that it is done at all - and by Sir Peter Hall. It may well be that the sight of men's sock suspenders were once intrinsically comical - this was, after all, a time when millions tuned in to The Dick Emery Show, Mind Your Language and The Black and White Minstrels - but not now.

And it is not just details which render the show utterly anachronistic; it is the fact that, as with the above TV shows, society has moved on so much that this corpus is really one for the coroners. One particularly lame running gag is the repeated exclamation, following a piece of perceived sexual shenanigans, of: "This must be what they mean by the permissive society", which is uttered with a mixture of wonder and delight.

There is no suggestion that the play, which is after all by Britain's best-loved avuncular grump, is likely to offend anyone. But it does lead one to ponder as to who on earth now would part with good money and the best part of two hours in order to share the company of its necrotic charms.

The central premise, as in the Carry-Ons which came before, is that Middle England is in the grip of a monomania; a constant, unrelieved and therefore frenzied sexual frustration, with residents of leafy avenues everywhere desperate to divest and to it pell-mell, but unable to do so.

The play, which is staged against the black reflecting curve of Kevin Rigdon's Measure for Measure set, mixes elements of the game show, postcards by Eric Gill, song, soliloquies and the use of an omniscient narrator, half cleaner, half Sybil. The cast do their best but it's a hopeless task. Corpus, if it ever truly lived, is dead now. It has ceased to be. The kindest thing would be to leave it to moulder, unmolested.

- Pete Wood


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