Two stars out of five
Habeas Corpus opened promisingly, Ciaran Bagnall’s stage immediately transported the audience to 1970’s Brighton through the row of colourful beach huts that lined it, giving a nostalgic sense of beach-time holidays of days gone by that would certainly have appealed to what was a slightly elder audience. These beach huts would frequently open to reveal the comic onstage organist, played by Howard Crossley, whose jovial, sing-a-long opening prepared the audience for Bennett’s light hearted farce, while practically, the huts allowed for the characters to quickly appear and disappear, giving the piece the pace that was needed for a play so focused on constant misunderstandings and misinterpretations of every character. Sadly the optimism amongst the audience created by this clever opening was quickly abated.
The actors did little to emphasise that this was a wittier take on a farce, ignoring the power that Bennett’s puns and soliloquies would usually give to the piece, and instead creating what was a hugely uncomfortable piece of theatre. The acting was inconsistent and more often than not, completely unbelievable. Rob Edwards, playing the sex-obsessed Arthur Wicksteed changed in an instant from the preying doctor to the philosophising elder man without any explanation, and very little understanding from the audience. Similarly Paula Jennings, playing the alluring Felicity Rumpers, gave no life or credibility to her role, making the character seem entirely two-dimensional. While the programme claimed that this is a play that ‘faces up squarely to the inevitables of birth, life, decay and death’, this production seemed to completely ignore these subtleties within the text, instead focusing on a world of middle class, sex starved mania, in which women can only be seen as sexual objects and men as their predators.
Aside from the set, the only element that managed to save the play in any way was the character of Mrs Swabb, played by Russel Dixon. In this character Dixon managed, where the other actors had not, to find a balance between reality and comedy, creating the only truly hilarious character in the play. Unfortunately this one great character could not carry the entire play, and the simplistic interpretation, over exaggerated and unbelievable acting and failure to connect with the audience make this performance of Habeas Corpus one to avoid.
Habeas Corpus ran at the Bolton Octagon between 20th October and 12th November.