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Habeas Corpus, Bolton Octagon, Review

Joan Davies thinks it's all a bit old-fashioned Bennett's 70s' farce

Published on October 31st 2011.

Habeas Corpus, Bolton Octagon, Review

WITH  his two recent plays, ‘The History Boys’ and The Habit of Art’, both achieving commercial and critical successes, Alan Bennett’s reputation as a playwright is at an all time high, so it makes sense for Bolton Octagon to re-visit one of his 70s' successes, the farce ‘Habeas Corpus’ 

Without the context of the laughs these lines just seem a little strange and the focus on lustful pleasures jars as the play almost completely ignores the charms of commitment, love and trust.

As in all farces sex is a major force, characters disguise their true intents, identities are mistaken, motivations misread and much is revealed, usually unintentionally. The audience can leave the theatre having had a good laugh and puzzle over why it was so funny. Often there’s a more thoughtful subtext too. 

Set in early 70s Brighton, Habeas Corpus is written and presented in the world of the seaside picture postcard. Ciaran Bagnall’s design gives us a row of bright Brighton beach huts, useful in speeding the exit and entry of the cast as well as reflecting their original intention of retaining bathers’ modesty by hiding the reality behind our prepared public face.  

The characters could be from central postcard casting: randy doctor, almost-randier vicar, not-quite-innocent blonde, sex-starved battleaxe, protective mother, and a spotty young man who hasn’t quite got anything together yet.

Young women are either blonde, curvaceous and dim, or mousy, flat-chested and dim. Middle aged women are loud, frustrated and dim, but never stylish. Actually to be fair the men are pretty dim too. 

An excellent cast does really well to bring these caricatures to some sort of life. Russell Dixon has the best role, in drag again as Mrs Swabb the clearer, effectively the chorus, seeing all the foibles of her employers, the Wicksteed family, remaining unshockable and making pertinent predictions and passing comments as she scoots through with the hoover. 

The Octagon Theatre Bolton - Habeas Corpus - Production Photo 6_Low Res

The standard elements of farce are there: virgins and vicars, suspended socks and dropped trousers, and a range of characters, men of standing and women who’ve made a good marriage, whose moral sensibilities are vastly overestimated.  

I find I watch farce in two stages: the first wondering why everyone is behaving so stupidly and why they don’t just explain the situation honestly, clear the air and get on with life; the second laughing uncontrollably, all logic suspended, along with the socks, and doubts dropped, along with the trousers. 

Unfortunately in this production the second stage did not materialise.  The well-cast actors worked hard, costume and design worked well, but something was absent. 

At times pace was uncertain, often too slow and occasionally too fast so that the next line was lost to audience laughter. But that didn’t happen often because there wasn’t as much laughter as there should be in farce. It seems to be a problem of the piece. The seventies are so long ago that the play provides little for a modern audience to laugh at; the underlying beliefs are too far removed from today’s shared values. We might raise a nostalgic grin at a seaside postcard, but this style of humour cannot sustain a modern audience for two hours. 

The Octagon Theatre Bolton - Habeas Corpus - Production Photo 11_Low Res

With Alan Bennett as writer the play was never going to be a simple farce. The characters lean towards cynicism and there’s a darker side pointed out by many, including the knowing Mrs Swabb, which reflects on our short time on Earth, our even shorter bloom, and suggests we take all our opportunities for pleasure wherever we can.

Without the context of the laughs these lines just seem a little strange and the focus on lustful pleasures jars as the play almost completely ignores the charms of commitment, love and trust. 

David Thacker, Octagon Theatre’s Artistic Director, has built a strong reputation during his recent tenure, but this seems to be a revival too far. 

Habeas Corpus is at the Octagon from Thursday 20 October – Saturday 12 November 2011. 


The Octagon Theatre Bolton - Habeas Corpus - Production Photo 15_Low Res

The Octagon Theatre Bolton - Habeas Corpus - Production Photo 3_Low Res


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Graham StephensNovember 1st 2011.

Went to see it last night - really enjoyed it thought the timing was excellent throughout, with no weak performances by any of the cast!!

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