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Theatre Review: Habeas Corpus is a welcome distraction from chaotic times

The play is as chaotic as the times we are living in, and offers some much needed laughter.

Thomas Josling (Dennis Wicksteed), Kirsty Besterman (Constance Wicksteed), Ria Jones (Mrs Swabb). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Habeas Corpus
Menier, London, until February 27

To think that theatre columns were once sedate, orderly enclaves of newspapers. I wake up these days with little or no idea what show I’ll be reviewing in the evenings. For your information, the big review this week was going to be Hex, the National Theatre’s new musical based on Sleeping Beauty, and in the column before it should have been the stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge! at the Piccadilly Theatre.

The first nights of both had to be postponed for Covid-related reasons and so it’s Habeas Corpus I’m casting a critical eye over this week. It’s an appropriately chaotic play for chaotic times. Alan Bennett’s work was first performed in London almost half a century ago with Alec Guinness as its star. It was a big hit. It then transferred to Broadway, where it fared less well, but then that’s hardly surprising as its humour is uniquely British. It’s about sex, which the Americans tend to take terribly seriously, whereas we, generally speaking, still find it inordinately funny.

Its director Patrick Marber gets – as Matthew Warchus did with his brilliant revival of Boeing-Boeing a decade ago – that these sturdy old comedy classics are powered by infinitely complex mechanisms that need to be handled with care. There’s a balletic quality to both where the actors are in constant motion and an entrance or exit that’s just a few seconds out could throw everything off.

Just as Boeing-Boeing had a wonderful star turn from Roger Allam, so this one has from Jasper Britton as Arthur Wickstead, a world-weary GP who has the hots for Felicity Rumpers (Katie Bernstein). Britton is a wonderful old stager: he has his father Tony’s way of communicating jokes to audiences on several levels: there’s the joke itself and then invariably there’s the in-joke, too. It’s a very clever and intimate form of acting that not a lot of people can pull off.

Just about everyone has the hots for someone in this show, but there is little, if any, consummation. There are great performances, too, from Ria Jones as a nosy cleaning lady called Mrs Swabb, Dan Starkey as the diminutive but self-important Sir Percy Shorter, and Catherine Russell as Wickstead’s wife.
It all makes for a joyous night and it brought home to me, too, how much fun early Bennett plays are compared to later Bennett: he was more seditious, even Ortonesque when he was starting out.

All things considered, I can’t complain about Hex: Habeas Corpus has proved a most welcome diversion and I doubt very much you’ll hear more laughter in any other theatre this Christmas.

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