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Habeas Corpus at the Menier Chocolate Factory – review

Alan Bennett's '70s comedy returns

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Dan Starkey (Sir Percy), Kirsty Besterman (Constance Wicksteed), Matthew Cottle (Canon Throbbing)
© Manuel Harlan

When Alan Bennett's carnal comedy Habeas Corpus first came to the stage almost half a century ago, audiences and critics were torn – an enamoured British public was promptly followed by a much more unreciprocating Broadway crowd – and the show closed on the Great White Way in under three months.

This is early, raunchy Bennett, a few plays on from the jagged teases of Beyond the Fringe. With warring lovers and illicit moments, It's almost like act four of A Midsummer Nights Dream played as a comedy of manners in a Hove-based GP surgery – less Brighton Rock and more Carry-On Shock. On the cusp of 2022, it carries its wrinkles better than some, though it's hard not to shake the feeling that in the hands of any other 20th century playwright the plot would have been a darn sight less stageable. But Bennett isn't any other playwright – lending the piece a wry, philosophical air that, to some extent, deflects the worst excesses of its storyline.  

We pitch up at the practice of one doctor Wicksteed, a lecherous, covetous 53-year old with his eyes on young 20-something miss Felicity Rumpers – who is, herself in a bit 
of a pickle due to an untimely conception. This is the writer who less than 20 years back, penned a largely cherished play about a school master who fondled his pupils - so to have another white-collar protagonist be equally prone to carnal pursuits is unsurprising. At the same time, just as Bennett repeated in The History Boys, the ever-present notion of mortality gives the show a final coda.

Jasper Britton (Arthur Wicksteed), Katie Bernstein (Felicity Rumpus)
© Manuel Harlan

Director Patrick Marber recognises the lack of timelessness here that The History Boys largely aspired towards – heck, even the posters recognise this is a show penned "in a less enlightened time". As such, everything on the Menier Chocolate Factory's stage is peeled back and placed in abstract form (a nod to the stark empty stage that was much more radical five decades back). A largely unchanging set is home only to an unassuming coffin (an ode, perhaps, to Bennett's then-contemporary Joe Orton and his much-loved Loot) while non-diegetic music bursts across scenes to underscore the comedy.

Everything is delivered at a whipsharp pace – with a few knowing asides (jokes about a character being forced to get a booster jab, or the need for certification to enter a venue, get an elevated eyebrow from the cast) peppered throughout. One liturgical ode to Bennett's unmistakeable accent is thrown in for good measure.

But there are only so many scrotum-rubs one can take, and elements of the plot – fixations on fake breasts, blasé treatments of suicide and jokes about stature – are about as dated as a serial Hinge user.

There'll be a waiting crowd of nostalgia loving theatre fans ready to lap up the production in spades. The cast dish out the necessary goods, with surefire work from Jasper Britton as the sleazy, sweaty doctor, Catherine Russell as his libido-lacking wife Muriel and Ria Jones, making her play debut (though still getting a few moments to sing on high) playing the omniscient cleaning lady Mrs Swabb (a role played by Bennett himself in the 70s).

So yes, dated as sin, but Bennett's text is a wordy trove of humorous giggles - even if some other sections might make you gag.