Review: Alan Bennett's puncturing of sexual hypocrisy still packs a punch on Stratford stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Habeas Corpus at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin), Constance Wicksteed (Kathy Buckingham Underhill) and Canon Throbbing (Richard Ball)
Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin), Constance Wicksteed (Kathy Buckingham Underhill) and Canon Throbbing (Richard Ball)

Alan Bennett’s tale of frustrated passions and thwarted libidos has had a long run. First shown in 1973, it sent up the permissive society of the 60s something rotten. Not that it wagged a finger. On the contrary: it revelled in what we now see as crude sexism of that flamboyant decade. The play delights in the proposition that everyone, no matter how respectable, is driven by the same basic urges, which are ultimately the only weapon we have against death.

Habeas Corpus is a farce, but one with more to it than a few pairs of dropped trousers – though there are plenty of those. The intricate plot involves the sorts of tropes you’d expect from the form: mistaken identities, misplaced passions, and dastardly motives behind the veneer of middle class respectability. I won’t go far into the details; suffice it to say that Dr Wicksteed (Peter Ward) is an ageing doctor with a still burning lust for life, particularly if it comes in the form of a pretty patient. His frustrated wife, Muriel (Pamela Hickson), yearns for some of the passion he so freely displays elsewhere. Then there’s the matter of the false breasts, purchased by flat-chested Constance Wicksteed (Kathy Buckingham-Underhill), which when they arrive by post allow her alter-ego to take flight.

There’s no way to avoid the fact that the play itself would not be written now. Jokes about vicars looking up women’s skirts, and doctors freely taking advantage of female patients are not in keeping with these times of #metoo. But Bennett is no mere dealer in smut. He was reacting against prudery and sexual hypocrisy; and for all we know we may yet find a similar backlash, for good or ill, following today’s heightened awareness of sexual power.

With characters such as Canon Harold Throbbing (Richard Ball) and Lady Celia Rumpers (Margot McLeary) on the boards the only way to deal with such shenanigans is to go all out for the humour. And they do. It’s safe to say the Bear Pit Theatre Company does comedy brilliantly. This is full-on farce, with some wonderful over-the-top characters. Every player of this excellent cast is on top form. But I’d really like to draw attention to one of the relative newcomers, to me at least. Nathan Brown puts in a splendid performance as Dennis, the Wicksteed’s spotty hypochondriac son. He inhabited his weedy, nerdy character’s soul brilliantly.

It’s a measure of Bennett’s writing, and the Bear Pit’s gift for comedy, that Habeas Corpus still packs a punch. But it does, and the audience loved it.

* Habeas Corpus runs at the Bear Pit theatre until March 24. Call 01789 403416 to book.