Tuesday, July 5

Habeas Corpus – Lyceum Theatre, Oldham

“I’ve never seen anything like it since I was a locum in Liverpool.”

So declares the diminutive Sir Percy Shorter in Alan Bennett’s 1973 farcical exploration of the randy side of Little England, named after the Latin legal phrase that roughly translates to ‘have the body’.

Set in the residence of a Brighton and Hove GP, Arthur Wicksteed, the play is a saucy seaside postcard collection of characters and carry ons, each loaded with carnal frustrations and foibles.

There’s Wicksteed’s wife, the frustrated Muriel who, neglected by her husband, longs to rekindle a past dalliance with Sir Percy. Her sister, the flat-chested Constance, buys fake breasts in the hope of literally boosting her chance of romance.

The Wicksteed’s wimpish son Dennis is convinced he’s dying until his head is turned by the delightful Felicity Rumpus, daughter of Lady Rumpus; just returned from the colonies.

And, strangling the life out of pun-led surnames is horny vicar Canon Throbbing, desperate to cast aside his celibacy. What follows is a cacophony of mix-ups, ill manners and double entendres as each member of the ensemble fights to fulfil their desires.

Director Paul Gledhill has assembled a cast that certainly looks the part. Jon Comyn-Platt takes on the role of Arthur, looking every inch the world-weary GP. His more lecherous side as he claps eyes on Felicity, or his neglect of the son whose name he can’t even remember, is less convincing, but he handles the volume of dialogue well.

Sue Radcliffe gives a competent performance as the statuesque Muriel, with excellently plummy tones and the air of a woman longing to eke out her prime. Cameron Kennedy captures Dennis’ ‘wet blanket’ nature and Maureen Coop approaches the physical comedy required of Constance with relish.

Alison Mitchell is well cast as Felicity, providing lots of charm to send hearts fluttering. Nigel Slater seems to be channeling Rowan Atkinson at his most frenzied, certainly selling the Canon’s frustrated nature with gusto, although sometimes being a bit wild with his mannerisms. Alison Foy gives a warm and self-assured turn as the omnipresent cleaner Mrs Swabb.

The overall ability of the cast is mixed, with certain sequences being stronger than other. A lot of Bennett’s poetic dialogue is delivered less as a philosophical musing on life, more ‘an evening with Pam Ayres’, and there’s varying success in landing some of the zinger one-liners.

The slapstick elements prove a bit of a struggle too – one character falls back before the chair he’s supposedly been hit with has barely started to swing.

But the cast cope well in the confines of the cosy Lyceum, making the most of the limited technical resources, with some nice directorial touches and smartly following the guidance of the playwright to keep the stage largely bare (save for the occasional chair or hospital screen) as characters flurry on and off.

Despite being primarily set at Wicksteed’s home, we have a backdrop of panels depicting the seaside and a huge red and gold sun motif which, whether intended or not, and rather fittingly for the story, gives a sense of instead being inside a circus tent.

The wise decision to root the play firmly within its 1970’s origins, rather than approach it with a knowing sense of irony, serves the ensemble well, as we can look at the piece as a snapshot of its time. A willingness to put aside any modern sensibilities will reward the audience with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and, if they listen carefully, a reminder of Bennett’s ability for witty and perceptive musings on human nature even at its most vulgar.

Habeas Corpus is on until Saturday 18th June. For tickets visit Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett at Lyceum Theatre Oldham event tickets from https://www.lyceumtheatre.org.uk/habeas-corpus/

Reviewer: Louise Steggals 

Reviewed: 13th June 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★