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Saucy farce is dated but still has sex appeal


Habeas Corpus, Bear Pit Theatre, Rother Street, Stratford, until March 24.

One of Alan Bennett’s earlier plays, first performed in 1973, the story revolves around Dr Arthur Wicksteed (Peter Ward) his wife Muriel (Pamela Hickson) and their family who live in Hove.

Arthur, 53, sees life passing him by. His sister Constance Wicksteed (Kathy Buckingham Underhill) is engaged to unworldly Canon Throbbing (Richard Ball). She dreams of large breasts, and orders some in a box, notanticipating that a man may come to check them. In the meantime Arthur's son Dennis (Nathan Brown), a thin, pale young man, is convinced he only has three months to live. Then who should appear but the beautiful young Felicity (Abi Deehan ) and all his dreams come true.

Felicity brings new meaning to the Latin term Habeas Corpus (having the body) for smitten Dennis.

Essentially this play is a farce about the obsession mankind has with sex. It reflects the changes that took place in the permissive 1960s and demonstrates how much our attitude to other people whom we may desire is based on an illusion.

“Is this civilisation? I'm only thankful Kenneth Clarke isn't here to see it. I've been in the country three weeks and it's nothing but sex, sex, sex - well, I'm not having any!" Lady Rumpers (Margot McCleary) The play takes place in a quirky set with two beach cabins being used to allow the actors to move on and off the stage. A high pedestal enables Arthur to address the audience at intervals in a more profound way. It is brilliantly written as one might expect but it is dated.

Much of the content of the play is no longer what the younger generation would regard as PC. Men selling women fake breasts and examining them, people running around with their trousers around their legs. It is true farce.

In the second act the double entendre and misunderstandings and farcical movements accelerate and the audience becomes more engaged. Undoubtedly there are some very fine performances in this play Pamela Hickson and Peter Ward hold the audience from the moment they set foot on the stage. Other actors including Mrs Swabb, (Niki Baldwin) the cleaning lady is excellent in her role linking characters and the underlying story together.

As an amateur production it holds together well. A worthwhile experience but you would have to love farce in order to enjoy this play.

...Bennett would be delighted by this lusty ensemble

By Peter McGarry

Alan Bennett reportedly criticised some earlier productions of his play for allowing theatrical convention to blur its true concept. Here there is no such hindrance. With verve and vitality, the company launches into a delightfully frenzied farce which, by its very naughty nature, strides a clever path somewhere between Carry On slapstick and Joe Orton black comedy. As a team effort, it fairly fizzes along and director Vanessa Comer achieves a splendid all-round entertainment which in no way shirks the saucy demands of its writer. If you’re looking for political correctness, there’s none here. Bennett clearly decided to go for broke on the founding of the supposed permissive society and base it all around a dysfunctional family and their equally dysfunctional social circle. Thus the players are tasked with conveying lust in all its variable guises, from good-old fashioned leching by the ageing family head to pent-up passions for an old flame by his wife to yearnings for a life-changing boobs job by the spinster sister. The pace has to be smart and the director ensures, with the help of cleverly-placed settings, that obstacles never get in the way of the performers’ mobility. This even extends to father delivering his lifetime philosophies from a raised platform – here, in addition to the anticipated witty dialogue, Bennett treats us to some delicious passages of verse, a ploy which would have actually worked beautifully if it could have been applied to the whole play. Peter Ward tackles this challenge with great style and is beautifully backed by Pamela Hickson as his ever-coarsening wife and Kathy Buckingham Underhill as the sister yearning for breast redemption. But it’s a genuine ensemble effort with each player turning up trumps in a production which has a fine eye for the intricacies of what was then a newly irreverent age. It’s a fair assumption that Mr B would be quite pleased with this one.

Winner!