Saucy seaside postcard play at the Chocolate Factory
“Nothing escapes me in a month of Sundays
I know when they change their undies”
Habeas Corpus was only Alan Bennett’s second play written in the 1960s and of its time with jokes akin to those seaside postcards drawn by Donald McGill. Patrick Marber’s production at the Chocolate Factory is a gentle homage to that era of comic farce, managed without any doors on a corridor, but with a few dropped trousers.
Set in the genteel town, next to Brighton, of Hove, we meet jaded GP Dr Arthur Wicksteed (the delightful Jasper Britton) aged 53. His wife Muriel (Catherine Russell) longs for the romance she had, before marrying Wicksteed. The beau (and I use the word loosely here) she rejected is Sir Percy Shorter (Dan Starkey), the five feet nothing president of the BMA. Shorter is in town for a medical conference. The Wicksteeds’ only child is Dennis (Thomas Josling) a tall skinny hypochondriac who fuels his medical paranoia by reading his father’s medical encyclopedia.
The doctor’s unmarried sister, she doesn’t like the word spinster and nor do I, Constance (Kirsty Besterman) longs too for a romance. Being flat chested Constance thinks her lack of a bosom deters suitors. The doctor’s house is looked after by all seeing cleaner and gossip, Mrs Swabb (Ria Jones). Constance has a devoted follower, Canon Throbbing (Matthew Cotton) described by the playwright as a celibate, who looks up girls’ skirts in trains under the cover of the Daily Telegraph but he doesn’t thrill Constance. “But the Daily Telegraph is such a respectable newspaper!” says Muriel Wicksteed.
Mrs Swabb as narrator introduces everybody and fills in details we need to know. The characterisations are good fun and when Constance orders a breast enhancement device which comes with a personal fitter Mr Shanks (Abdul Salis) who doesn’t actually know which woman is his client, the titillation is ready to begin. The commensurate issue is that Constance doesn’t know which man her breast fitter is with consequent groping and misunderstanding.
Into the mix from Addis Ababa, back in Blighty, is ex-pat Lady Rumpers (Caroline Langrishe) and her nubile daughter Felicity (Katie Bernstein).
Dr Wicksteed arranges a rendezvous with pretty blonde Felicity in the hope of diverting his mid life crisis. It seems Felicity was conceived in wartime in a blackout with a doctor whom Lady Rumpers only saw with the light of a post coital Craven A.
What is remarkable about the direction and the acting of Bennett’s play here is that we actually start to care about these people and their hoped for outcomes. I wanted Muriel to be able to rekindle her feelings of romance and for Constance to actually meet a man who loved flat chested girls. There are also more rhyming couplets than I have ever heard from Alan Bennet with some fun word play.
You can see with the humour here how popular this play is at being put on by Am Dram productions but you will never see Habeas Corpus so finely acted as it is here at the Chocolate Factory. Patrick Marber as director obviously is affectionate about this play. We feel not only the longing but the undercurrent of sadness and unrequited love in middle age. How refreshing that they didn’t feel the need to employ an intimacy director to control the feeling!
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Patrick Marber
Director: Patrick Marber
Designer: Richard Hudson
Movement Design: Emily Jane Boyle
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Sound Designer and Music: Adam Cork
Fight Director: Terry King
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes without an interval
Booking to 27th February 2022