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 ingĂ©nue 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


  1. Hi Nick..On this particular night I believe your comments to be fair and accurate...As a cast we did have a massive hurdle to overcome with the bad behaviour of some of the it was a credit to us that we continued..Quite obviously this will have affected some of the cast more than others.. Linda may well have been thrown off her stride which is understandable....But in saying that you can only comment on what you witness...We are all at varying levels of acting ability..I myself have limited experience of treading the main attribute comes from being a singer/entertainer and the confidence that craft gives you..but the role of Percy fits my vertically challenged stature so I enjoyed taking on the part..Fully agree with you about Albert..he was and always is exceptional...others too deserved much praise...For our first night I would have given us a generous 7/10 (it really was a challenge)...Second night we where all on our game and I would have almost given us a 9....The final night we showed our real team spirit and strength..we had had to perform without one of our main characters..Lady Rumpers..Irene Morrison..who was sadly taken to hospital..Our Director Ann Bates stepped into the role and performed with great credit...Thank you again Nick for reviewing our where not wrong in your views but perhaps under the circumstances it may have been better to have come back the following night when a more fairer assessment might have been made.....Many Thanks Ted Williams Percy Shorter..

  2. Hill states he reviewed the production “with the knowledge of reviewing Habeus Corpus “
    I would assume that anyone reading his review could safely take it that he had studied the text particularly in light of the criticisms made
    I note therefore with some interest his comments in relation to the following

    1/ He refers to Felicity Rumpers as the ingenue of the play. By definition an ingenue is an innocent ,inexperienced trusting young woman , A cursory read of the play would inform you that she is sexually promiscuous, calculating ,devious and cold hearted .

    2/ He ciriticises the set of three dining chairs and calls it “utterly uncreative”.Anybody who has read this play would be fully aware as to why only 3 chairs were used and Bennett’s insistence with regards to the same .I quote his own words in the play’s introduction.”The bare stage specified in the stage directions is essential to the bare text “

    3/He states the play I set in the late 60’s . It is not . The text is silent as to any specific date .A reading of the play would inform you it was written in 1973 and some of the references made make it clear that it was not set in the 60’s eg reference To Kenneth Clarke who only became an MP in 1970 and subsequently a whip in the Heath government .

    4/I also note he initially states “this is a text ,that with the right cast and direction,can make for an enjoyable evening of classic comedy “ Later on he appears to take a total contradictory stance and states “ the narrative which is ,let’s face it ,darkly outdated,sexist and offensive.
    5/ What perhaps is more interesting about the above remarks is that they have an uncanny similarity to a Review of Roger Powell for the Southend Theatre Scene relating to a production which was performed between the 6 and 9th of December 2017

    Powell states “this completely dated play ,all that comes across is a hugely sexist ,vulgar and rather offensive piece of theatre “

    6/ The similarities do not end there .Powell states “ the play’s grotesque characters should almost emerge in some form of comedia dell’arte kind of creation such is each of their stock types “

    Hill ,above states “ We needed part grotesque,part comedia dell’arte “

    Powell refers to the characters as stock types and makes reference to “thwarted libido’s .

    Hill does the same

  3. Habeas Corpus
    by Alan Bennett

    Myself, my best friend, her son and her 2 high school friends went to the final show of the popular Habeas Corpus on January 19th, 2019 in Liverpool at the Hope Street Theatre.

    In a nutshell; 5 separate opinions, 5 different walks of life, 10 thumbs up.

    The production is generally a success on its own terms; however, despite the flawed review above, I found it to be exactly as it was described in the Directors note. Personally, the simplicity of it’s setting enabled the audience to engage entirely within the script and storyline and wasn’t blind sighted by dramatic settings, noises or distractions. Which, in reality really hangs heavy on the actors involved as there is very little wiggle room to fall back on if errors occur. Fortunately, I can honestly state there is very little constructive criticism from myself. Apart from the occasional misplaced actor currently on stage being in the way of an entering character I really can’t fault anything else. The Director, Ann Bates prior to performing, instructed the audience she wasn’t entirely sure of the lines for her newly formed role of Lady Rummers (Previous actress wasn’t able to partake due to being at the hospital), Ann highlighted herself for further inspection by notifying the room she in fact wasn’t an original cast member, and from my point of view she did extremely well. ‘The show must go on’ sprang to mind and boy did it.

    The production starts and finishes with a captivating bunch of actors gripping the audiences attention with their effortless style of acting. The intimate setting is exactly what enabled me to follow Alan Bennetts 70’s farce. Each scene was presented well, clear and concise and I can’t wait for a further date with the team from Keyhole Theatre Company.

    Please find below my review of each individual participate of Habeas Corpus;

    Arthur Wicksteed - Albert Hasting - 10/10

    Muriel Wicksteed - Linda Dolan - 10/10

    Dennis Wicksteed - P.J. Murray - 10/10

    Connie Wicksteed - Amanda Lancaster - 10/10

    Mrs Swabb - Jackie Connolly - 10/10

    Canon Throbbing - Scott Jones - 10/10

    Lady Rumpers - Irene Morrison/Ann Bates in the finale show - 10/10

    Felicity Rumpers - Colette O’Connell - 10/10

    Mr Shanks - Adam Byrne - 10/10

    Sir Percy Shorter - Ted ‘Jive Teddy’ Williams - 10/10

    Mr Purdue - John Benjamin - 10/10

    Extra credit to the following;

    Director - Ann Bates - 10/10

    Asst Director - Nadege Josa - 10/10

    Stage Managers - Ben Conning / Caleb Dolan - 10/10

    My only regret is that I didn’t attend the opening evening, because I would have been in a position to encourage people to go and see the fine act which was non other than the wonderful team at Keyhole Theatre Company. I look forward to future shows by such a  talented bunch of people.

    Thank you.