Habeas Corpus (review)

Habeas Corpus
Habeas Corpus

ALAN Bennett is so adored that audiences and theatre companies talk about him with hushed reverence. He’s one of our few modern playwrights who not only produces an eloquent and complex script but it’s usually brimming with wit and an under-text of satire.

Habeas Corpus, so delighted by am-dram groups, has been seized by Leighton Buzzard Drama Group for a production stuffed with light-hearted slap and tickle.

Imagine a saucy seaside postcard and there you have the story of the wickedly wanton Wicksteed family.

Father, Arthur, at 53 is a Brighton and Hove GP going through a mid-life crisis after spending years as a middle-aged lecher of young girls. He’s henpecked and disillusioned and prone to talk in verse at moments of temporary profundity and cod philosophy; his bristling and sexually frustrated wife, Muriel lives with the regret that she turned down an earlier suitor; and son Dennis is a neurotic hypochondriac (it’s no wonder with parents like these). Add to the clan Arthur’s dowdy flat-chested sister who is desperate for breasts and you have the ghastly Wicksteeds.

There follows a farce of monumental proportions as both father and son chase a lusty bit of skirt called Felicity, Muriel craves an old flame; a randy vicar comes a wooing and a man called Mr Stark appears to possibly have one of the best jobs in the world.

The problem with Habeas Corpus, which played at the Leighton Buzzard Theatre this week, is that it all seems rather tame now.

It’s set in 1973 Brighton (which, for those doing the maths, doesn’t add up when mention is made of young Felicity’s antecedents) and there’s much talk of the permissive society. The only problem is is that the PS was very much like the Swinging Sixties – it only involved a handful of people in central London, the rest of us just got on with life.

In actuality the permissive society, if it ever existed took place a decade earlier. The only thing of note in 1973 was how awful a year it was – IRA bombings in England, mining disasters and endless strikes.

So a bit of rumpy pumpy among the middle classes now seems terribly twee.

But you can’t knock Bennett (I wouldn’t dare, he’s one of my favourites) and you can’t knock this group’s rendition of his early work.

The comedy is a bit hit and miss in places with a couple of weak performances but generally the cast have a great time with a classic farce.

Andrew Meadows, so abhorrently evil in LBDG’s Gaslight recently, gives a highly animated performance as the GP. At times he’s bit too Basil Fawlty, but that’s not a bad thing, and he gets plenty of laughs with the odd moment of pathos thrown in.

Lorna Daggett’s Muriel is Sybil to Meadows’ Basil. She’s led an empty life of flower arranging and cake decoration, a typical card-carrying member of the WI, who likes nothing better than to torment her wayward husband.

But the voluptuous actress also displays other fine assets in the comedy which puts other women half her age to shame. I’m not saying any more.

Tony White enjoys himself as he gets to grips with the role of bra adjuster Mr Shanks while younger cast members, Emma Stone (Felicity), Alex Eddie as the weirdly endearing Dennis and David Rourke in an excellent cameo as a suicidal patient, make it look so easy and are delightful to watch.

But the whole performance is kept together by the excellent Lainey Ward as the show’s narrator and resident char, Mrs Swabb. She’s a natural comedian who makes light work of Bennett’s sometimes heavy dialogue.

There’s something almost surreal about Mrs Swabb, with her support hose, pinny and curlers in her hair. Very Hilda Ogden. At times she plays part fairy-godmother and part guru, dispensing words of wisdom with the whisk of a feather duster.

Another great production from one of the town’s premier drama groups.

Habeas Corpus runs until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 0300 300 8125.

ANNE COX