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Wanganui Chronicle review of Habeas Corpus

Amusing, Farcical and Fantastic!
Review by Laurel Stowell.

Habeas Corpus, by Alan Bennett. Wanganui Repertory Theatre, 7.30pm, August 29.

The audience was chuckling moments into this fine production and the musical finale left it sighing and wishing for more. Habeas Corpus had all the usual elements of a British farce – mistaken identity, sexual innuendo, stock characters. But running alongside and among them was a wry commentary that took this play well beyond the standard. And some of the acting was magnificent – especially Patrick O’Connor as the all-too-human Dr Wicksteed and Linda Kerfoot as all-knowing cleaner Mrs Swabb.

That fact that O’Connor is a doctor in real life gives the play an extra edge – because much of it turns on bodies and doctoring. Early on Dr Wicksteed tells Canon Throbbing (Andrew Fawcett) how many male parts he’s seen. He’s completely indifferent to the human body, he says. But he has a knowing look on his face, and when the lovely Felicity (Kylie Wetherall) comes along, his interest is more than clinical. He’s aware of his own frailty, and expressions of lust and chagrin race across his face. And just to make sure no one takes the storyline seriously, Mrs Swabb informs us early on that she represents the working classes. Then she makes her presence felt with some noisy and vicious vacuum cleaning.

Most of the characters are lascivious. Canon Throbbing looks up women’s skirts. Mrs Wicksteed (Kerry O’Sullivan) turns into a siren and even her spotty son Dennis (Troy Taylor) gets some energy when Felicity appears.

The set is the same throughout, but is subtly altered by lighting, curtains, furniture moving and soft music from a live organist. Sometimes the actors break into song and dance in the footlights. Other times they break into rhyme.

Apart from a few clunky moments the action was fast and furious, and it had touches of genius. Mrs Swabb would appear holding the phone whenever it rang, and Mrs Wicksteed would throw it into the wings when she was finished with it.

The opening was masterly. As the audience settled in its seats a funeral was silently ending at the back of the stage, behind a gauze curtain, with mourners filing out and a coffin on a trestle. Dr Wicksteed then came on at the front, to tell a patient he isn’t going to die – but adds, in an aside, that he will certainly die some day.

As Mrs Swabb says toward the end: “The body’s an empty vessel, the flesh an awful cheat. The world is just an abattoir for rotting lumps of meat. So if you get your heart’s desire, your longings come to pass. Remember, in each other’s beds, it isn’t going to last. The smoothest cheek will wrinkle, the proudest breast will fall. Some sooner go, some later – but death will claim us all.”

It was an almost Shakespearian ending, in a working-class British accent. Fantastic.

Review posted with the kind permission of the Wanganui Chronicle.