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Midweek review of Habeas Corpus

Ambitious Wanganui Production Pays Off Perfectly
Review by Paul Brooks

Habeas Corpus – a comedy by Alan Bennett, directed by Mark Rayner, staged at Wanganui Repertory Theatre Friday, July 29, 2011.

Alan Bennett is one of Britain’s foremost writers of comedy and big words, earning fame when he teamed up with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller to produce the extraordinary Beyond the Fringe in 1960. From there he got better, adding kudos to his already brilliant pedigree and penning masterpieces of humour and satire. Habeas Corpus first appeared in 1973 with an illustrious cast and a positive reaction from the press and its pundits.

For Wanganui Repertory to present this play was an ambitious move, but, by golly, it seems to have paid off. The storyline, without giving too much away, revolves around the slightly devious Doctor Wicksteed and his wife, both of whom are pursuing partners outside the marriage. Nor are they alone, as other characters chase each other for whatever affections are available, or, in one case, for just a little attention to avert an inevitable — but bungled — suicide. The script remains as Bennett wrote it; set in Hove, England, in the 1960s.

This, of course calls for English accents, or, failing that, audience imagination. In this performance there was some of both.

From the first scene — a gauze hidden funeral at stage rear, and the entrance of Doctor Wicksteed, played admirably by Patrick O’Connor – I was smiling. Many times I laughed out loud, as much at the actors’ interpretations of a character as their actual lines. Wicksteed is a bit of a ladies’ man with a wicked sense of humour and a naive mischief that endears him to the audience. His wife, Muriel, played by the talented Kerry O’Sullivan, yearns for her secret sweetheart, Sir Percy Shorter (Martin Brown), head of the British Medical Association. The Wicksteed’s son, variously referred to as Trevor, Keith or Dennis (it’s Dennis, played by Troy Taylor) is a hypochondriac of the first order, and is convinced he has only three months to live, a belief he uses to convince Felicity Rumpers (Kylie Wetherall) to marry him, thus unknowingly thwarting his father’s designs on the same young woman.

Meanwhile, Wicksteed’s spinster sister, Connie (Jacqui Paine) is seeking two, no, three things: breasts of some magnitude and a sex life. She, in turn, is being courted by Canon Throbbing (Andrew Fawcett). On the outskirts of the action, and yet central to it through an earlier act of debauchery committed under a table during an air raid, is Lady Rumpers (Dee Brough), mother of Felicity and one disgusted with everything going on.

Two others come and go to flesh out the action, and I use the term literally, and they are Mr Shanks (Graham Dack) who has been sent to help fit certain accoutrements purchased by Connie, and Mr Purdue (Dale Carr)—who is, indeed lost and looking for a permanent solution to his depression.

Central to the action and explaining all to the audience (with the narratorial assistance of Wicksteed) is the cleaning lady, Mrs Swabb, played with insight, understanding and aplomb by Linda Kerfoot, who deserved every laugh she got. Her vacuum cleaning is a sight and sound to behold.

Bennett has taken the superficial and delved beneath, looking for dirt and finding it.

Mark Rayner has taken his cast and exposed the talent beneath, giving his audience a fun night out and a play to remember.

There were many nice touches — and I don’t know if they were scripted or not—including the tattooed arm that appeared holding the telephone whenever it rang; the musical accompaniment from the rear of the stage (musical director Ron Chapman at the digital piano), present from the very first funeral scene, and other things designed to impress or surprise.

The scene change trickery from indoors comfort to chilly seaside was very neat. Don’t think we don’t appreciate such cleverness. There were standouts (there always are) and there were first night glitches, mostly involving lines, but I think Habeas Corpus as performed by Repertory well worth a look.

Review posted with the kind permission of the Wanganui Midweek.