Friday, 18 January 2019
REVIEW: Habeas Corpus - Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool
Alan Bennett’s 'Habeas Corpus' examines, albeit through a slightly surreal microscope, quintessential British modesty jostling with characteristics of the ever-growing ‘Permissive Society’. Set in Hove, within a Doctor’s Surgery in the late sixties, this play follows the narrative of the Wicksteed family headed by a perverse and sex mad Dr Arthur Wicksteed, his fantasy driven wife Muriel, and their hypochondriac and pitiable son Dennis. Oh, and let’s not forget a virginal, yet sexually impish, Cannon Throbbing, flat chested ‘spinster’ Connie Wicksteed, calamitous breast augmentation salesman Mr Shanks, play-away socialite Lady Rumpers and her sexually desirable daughter Felicity – the ingénue of the play! This melting-pot of stock archetypes, battling with their thwarted libidos, make for a classic farce. This is a style that Bennett isn’t famed for, but this is a text that, with the right cast and direction, can make for an enjoyable evening of classic comedy.
This was my first time at the Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool, and what a fantastic space it is. This striking grade two listed Masonic Hall is a fantastic addition to the local theatre scene, and excellent venue for fringe theatre. It was also my first sight of the work of Keyhole Theatre Productions.
Now into the marrow of it all: with the knowledge of reviewing Habeas Corpus, I obviously expected a farce. This is a small house and hosted an audience of 42. Amongst this audience were a group of men who were, without a shadow of a doubt and with a great degree of confidence and experience, the worst audience members I have ever encountered. Pints in hand, and louder than the action on stage, they utterly ruined the atmosphere of the house, and put this performance in flat-line territory. They talked over the exposition and it soon became apparent that they were friends of the actor playing Canon Throbbing, as all his action was underscored by outbursts of ‘Go on Scottie, lad’. This all took place within thrust staging and seating: intimate and awkward! To the outrage of the audience, they felt their presence unwelcome and resided to the theatre bar midway through the first act. Their exit, midway through a scene, got the applause of the night! As comedic as this all was, it was a real shame for the company, and a bigger shame that the front of house staff of the theatre didn’t act on it. It was no surprise that I left listening to a patron making a complaint about it.
So, the performance. I really wanted to like it, and maybe my enjoyment was thwarted by the audience chaos, but the performance was, in essence, lacking. Farce demands fast paced action, creative blocking, even better comic timing, and altogether more than what was on offer. The humour seemed to be taken at face value: not satirical enough to make light of narrative which is, let’s face it, darkly outdated, sexist and offensive, yet not acted well enough to be anything else but. To be blunt, not a lot was done with the script from page to stage - it felt more like a rehearsed reading over a crafted performance. I sat in quandary assuming whether this play was under-rehearsed, or in-fact over-rehearsed: stewed. Nonetheless, as we approached the denouement of the play we, in the least farcical way, saw; corpsing; missed cues; delayed entrances; lines muddled, missed, restarted and almost a feeling of relief when it was all over. This play doesn’t rely on its staging or technical theatre but three dining room chairs, and three lighting states was utterly uncreative, and put too much strain on these craft of the actors to keep the performance going for over two hours. We did get some momentum going towards the end of act one and we started to see a performance but the actors just didn’t let go. We needed part grotesque; part commedia dell’arte; part slapstick characterisation but this was not the case, we got an iterated and outdated trouser motif that lacked comic craft, and became tedious.
It’s not all bad! One thing I felt quite alienating whilst watching this performance, was the juxtaposition of acting skill on stage. Each coupled pairing seemed to work as a dichotomy of acting range, and added to the paradox feel of this performance. Albert Hasting, playing our Dr Wicksteed, was the elixir that this production required. Some excellent characterisation here and fantastic skill on offer. He owned the performance and should be commended for this. True to the paradox, less could be said for his stage wife played by Linda Dolan, clearly a passionate performer but lacked timing, pace, pause and offered very little range in terms of intonation and characterisation: the ingredients of this character. P.J Murray as Dennis Wicksteed created a believable character, and managed to evoke some humour from his ploy of creating pathos for his turbulent medical situation. Mrs Swabb, the audiences surrogate and all-seeing-eye of the performance, was in good hands with Jackie Connolly, though she really could get so much more out of her role with a little more energy and creativity with the script. Scott Jones in the role of Canon Throbbing deserved praise, I have no idea how he kept character just two feet away from the aforementioned audience members, but he offered some great humour and took advantage of his character. As for the rest of the cast, it was much of a muchness. Altogether a passionate cast but just lacking what this play needs. I’d love to see them with a script and style more suitable to them as I am sure they have more to offer than was on show. They looked like they enjoyed working together in this company and some could argue that’s what it’s all about.
Reviewer - Nick Hill
on - 17/1/19