Friday, January 14, 2022
Habeas Corpus @ Menier Chocolate Factory...
Today’s younger theatre-goers might wonder at the popularity of the farce as a genre back in the 1960s and 1970s. Is there a place in the West End of 2022 for crude innuendo, sex puns, wince-worthy double entendres, trouser-dropping, sexism, horny middle-aged men, sex-starved wives, flat-chested spinsters, and jokes about tits and cocks. 'Woke', it ain't. Well, judging by the packed house and the raucous laughter last night, the answer is a resounding 'yes'. We laughed like drains too.
Now this is partly due to the meta style of the piece. We are all in on the joke. Despite being written in 1973 the play is a post-modernist take on the farce and all the characters know who they are. In a pantomime style they often break the fourth wall to tell us they are in on the joke and to make sure we are too. They marvel at the poetry of their own crude lines with their obsession with self, with sex, and with death. It's a bit like Hamlet, playing it for laughs, while chasing the ghost of his father waving a dildo.
Bennett decreed the piece was to have no set, which already puts it in the realm of the modernist play – Richard Hudson's set offers just a coffin, a phone, a stuffed terrier dog and lots of great lighting (design by Richard Howell). And instead of the usual hurried one-liners, double takes and lots of shouting, the text is a treasure chest of resonant speechifying and vicious verbal sparring, stuffed with references to, yes, Shakespeare.
The sexually frustrated middle-class characters, living unfulfilled lives in Hove, turn out to be as melancholy as the Dane, as furiously vengeful as Iago, as nihilistic as Lear’s bastard, Edmund. They have a toothsome text to work with, breaking into couplets where “Sundays” rhymes with “undies” and delivering lines as unexpected as “King Sex is a wayward bollock!” (This from a character called Percy.) Even the self-styled representative of the working class, the cleaner Mrs Swabb (musicals actress Ria Jones), is at it: “The air is black with the wings of chickens coming home to roost,” she declares near the denouement with all the melodrama of a witch on the blasted heath. Bennett played Mrs Swabb himself for part of the first run: that would have been worth the price of admission.
All of this requires an almost deranged performing style that’s nevertheless anchored to a crispness of delivery and impeccable comic timing. As Muriel Wicksteed, the sex-starved middle-aged wife of philandering doctor Arthur, Catherine Russell has a good stab at this mad mix, especially in the scene where she aims a bosom at the waiting cupped hand of the man from the false-breast company (Abdul Salis) who thinks he is there to check that her mail order “falsies” fit. (They have been bought by Arthur’s flat-chested sister Connie, played ably by Kirsty Besterman.) Dan Starkey, too, as Sir Percy Shorter, “head of the BMA”, clearly relishes getting his chops round his florid lines, and his battle of words with Canon Throbbing, the predatory vicar (a subtle Matthew Cottle, who delivers the finale’s wedding vows in Bennett’s voice), is of the high standard the piece needs.
Camp it up too much, though, and it tilts towards just being a raucous romp about private parts and breast implants. That might be what some audiences are looking for in these straitened times but it’s not really the play Bennett wrote. Disappointment particularly registers in Jasper Britton’s portrayal of Arthur Wicksteed, Muriel’s roving-eyed husband, who tries to hide behind the rubric: “As a doctor, I’m a eunuch.”
Britton comes across more as a dyspeptic matinee idol playing the provinces. I wanted to feel he loved the latent anarchy of the piece, but it was a lukewarm relationship at best. His is the pivotal figure of the play after all. The final scene sees Wicksteed pronounce bleak aphorisms about the futility of the fleshly and the terrible pain of deathbed regrets. We're not convinced.
But if you can’t take his finale sadness remotely seriously, there's always the string of cock and breast jokes to make you smile.