The legal Latin of the title translates as ‘You might have the body’ and a theme which recurs throughout the play is that there is too much emphasis placed on the body, and especially its sex drive, compared with the emotions and other aspects of what it is to be human. Typically, Bennett is attacking the prevailing attitudes of the time, with mockery as his weapon of choice.
Is it a farce? Not in the Ray Cooney sense, although trousers are dropped, identities are mistaken and there are jokes about laxatives. It relies for its laughs much more on the skilful dialogue and the acute perception behind it. At times it is almost like a revue, with pairs of actors crossing the stage while speaking just two or three lines.
Habeas Corpus had its first performance in 1973. The date is significant for two reasons. First, the concept of the permissive society was new enough to be the mainspring of a comedy. Second, Bennett was not yet 40 and while the accuracy of his vision and the sharpness of his wit are evident throughout the play, they are naturally not as well-developed as in his later work.
If these factors make Habeas Corpus seem a little dated, it is still a darned good play. Like a more conventional farce, it requires good ensemble acting and a smart pace and this production does it full justice by providing both.
Mrs Swabb, the cleaning lady, introduces herself, then the characters, like contestants on a game show. She says that she represents Fate, but she is more like a chorus or narrator. Judy Garrett plays her with great fluency and makes her a really attractive character. The central figure is a GP, Arthur Wicksteed, which provides a good channel for Bennett’s observations on the body. Tony Parkinson brings authority to the part of this philandering doctor who is resisting the onset of middle age, but perhaps just misses getting the tone and timing of Bennett’s lines exactly right to bring out their full humour. As Muriel Wicksteed, Jenny Hughes achieves the trick of being equally convincing as domineering harridan, wronged wife and frustrated sexpot.
It is the ordering of a pair of ‘falsies’ by Arthur’s sister, Connie, that sets the plot going – and gives Bennett scope for more observations on how we regard our bodies. Jemma Cable, playing Connie, acts with her legs remarkably well, and brings off a believable transformation from ugly duckling to swan. As the Wicksteeds’ son, Calum Hearne has a nice line in gaucheness, while Michelle Barter is not only suitably decorative but acts well as the object of his affections, Felicity.
Felicity’s mother, Lady Rumpers, is home after decades in ‘the colonies’ and is a device to express astonishment at how Britain has changed. Val Mantle plays her with Lady Bracknell-like imperiousness, but is also believable when confessing a youthful peccadillo essential to the plot. Michael J Smith has the right stature for Muriel’s old flame, Sir Percy Shorter, but sacrifices clarity in his search for the right voice for the character.
Canon Throbbing, although a man of the cloth, is as susceptible to the lusts of the flesh as any of the other characters, and John Sivewright conveys this well. Possibly the stand-out performance comes from David Beddard, an accomplished clown, as the fitter of the troublesome falsies.
It is probably not the hardest play in the world to direct, but Barry Baynton has made the right choice in keeping it uncomplicated while ensuring plenty of movement on the simple but effective set.