Habeas Corpus (1998)
by Alan Bennett
Directed and Designed by Alan Buckman
"Habeas Corpus was written in 1973. It was an attempt to write farce without the paraphernalia of farce - hiding places, multiple exits and umpteen doors. Trousers fall, it is true, but in an instantaneous way, as if by divine intervention.
I wrote it without any idea of how it could be staged, and rehearsals began with just four bentwood chairs. The big revolution occurred after two weeks' rehearsal, when the director, Ronald Eyre, decided we could manage with three....The bare stage specified in the stage directions is essential to the bare text. Reintroduce the stock-in-trade of farce (as the Broadway production tried to do) and the play doesn't work. There is just enough text to carry the performers on and off, provided they don't get anywhere except into the wings, then they will be left stranded halfway across the stage, with no line left to haul themselves off.
...HABEAS CORPUS is not what Geoffrey Grigson called 'weeded of impermanence' - a necessary condition, apparently, if a play or a poem is to outlast its time. Topical references are cut. Of course plays don't become timeless by weeding them of timely references, any more than plays become serious by weeding them of jokes. But the jokes in HABEAS CORPUS about the permissive society do date it, and some of the other jokes make me wince. Still, HABEAS CORPUS is a favourite of mine if only because it's one of the few times I've managed not to write a naturalistic play.......But it's not altogether farce. Death doesn't quite lay down his book..."
Alan Bennett "Writing Home"
The original production had what might be called a 'dream' cast, with Alec Guinness as Wicksteed and Margaret Courtenay as his wife; Phyllida Law was Connie, Patricia Hayes played Mrs Swabb, and Roddy Maude-Roxby was Canon Throbbing, Joan Sanderson (the bad-tempered, deaf lady in'Fawlty Towers') played Lady Rumpers, and Andrew Sachs was Mr Shanks, Madeline Smith (remember her?) was Felicity, and John Bird took the part of Sir Percy Shorter. Quite a line-up!
- Arthur Wicksteed - Alan Jarvis
- Muriel Wicksteed - Ruth Shettle
- Dennis Wicksteed - Andrew Rickinson
- Constance Wicksteed - Juliette Mills
- Mrs. Swabb - Maggie Cearns
- Canon Throbbing - Brian Scoltock
- Lady Rumpers - Pam Jarvis
- Felicity Rumpers - Sarah O'Driscoll
- Mr. Shanks - Matthew Lyne
- Sir Percy Shorter - John Hartnett
- Mr. Purdue - John Lyne
- Stage Management - Jill Davies, Annette Wiseman
- Lighting Design - Keefe Browning
- Lighting Operator - Keefe Browning, Matthew Blackstaffe
- Sound - Paul O'Connor
- Set Construction - Anton Krause
- Prompt - Juliet Male
"This farcical comedy by Alan Bennett was first staged by South London Theatre in 1978, when the play was but five years old. In 1998 it looks decidedly whiskery, interesting in its way, but more as an indication of which way the wind was blowing in the salad days of one of our more thought-provoking dramatists. The author has called 'Habeas Corpus' "farce without the paraphernalia of farce", acting on which hint, director, Alan Buckman has here reduced its props to their absolute minimum of three chairs. In a sense, it reminds one of the old concept of Humours comedy, each character representing his or her abiding passion or characteristic. The plot - don't make me laugh - consists largely of a string of jokes, of which a fair specimen is the following hilarious exchange. "I had to get my skates on for Evensong." "Evensong on Ice?" Thin ice, no doubt. But at least Mr Buckman's has assembled a cast of slick performers who give the play a kind of marionette-like precision. Sarah O'Driscoll, a case in point worth noting, gives glamorous Felicity Rumpers the mechanical movements of an animated doll, and a sex doll at that. Alan Jarvis's maniacally robust portrayal of Hove's very own cynical Dr Arthur Wicksteed is of a man decaying at the edges with unrequited lust. Ruth Shettle as his wife, Muriel is a heaving mountain of concupiscence, Andrew Rickinson as his son, Dennis, a spotty post-adolescent horror, and not a pretty sight. As Sir Percy Shorter, the short President of the BMA, John Hartnett is the living embodiment of peppery choler, and has some of the funniest moments of the evening. Juliette Mills seems to attractive for the part of the repressed, flat-chested Constance Wicksteed, showing a pleasing vivacity beyond the demands of the role. Brian Scoltock plays the aptly named Canon Throbbing with a schoolboy relish; Matthew Lyne lends a goonish quality to Mr Shanks, the man from the false bust suppliers; and John Lyne repeats his make-weight role of twenty years ago, the supposedly suicidal Mr Purdue. Pam Jarvis is very regal, tres colonial as Lady Rumpers, and Maggie Cearns cleverly ties all the strings together as the cheerfully hoovering but ultimately rather tedious Mrs Swabb." Donald Madgwick (Croydon Advertiser)
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