Alan Bennett’s Habeus Corpus gets a belated revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Stuck in the past, should it have been left in the past too?
“He whose lust lasts, lasts longest”
The Menier Chocolate Factory know exactly what they’re doing when they lead with the tagline ‘a filthy farce from a less enlightened age’. If that type of comedy is your thing, then come darken our doors and escape the woke crowd… Alan Bennett’s Habeus Corpus dates from 1973 and nothing about Patrick Marber’s admittedly stylish production here can hide that fact.
Despite the quality of Bennett’s writing being fitfully evident with some really witty stuff, the major issue with the play lies in its uncertainty of form. It pushes towards farce but without any of that genre’s intricate cleverness and so can’t help but resemble a middling 1970s sitcom, with a base level of humour that even the most end-of-the-pier comic might have decided to leave in the dressing room.
The play flits around a GP who lives in Hove, who is far more interested in women than in his patients, a lasciviousness reflected by most of the men in what I guess longs to be called a sex comedy. So there’s tons of boob jokes. And because that’s the mentality, there’s fat jokes too. But as the theatre around you chortles, you can’t help but feel people are laughing with the misogyny and fat-phobia rather than at it.
There’s an archness to the whole proceeding which could been Bennett’s ironic take on it all but if that’s the intention it is lost in all the smut here. The cast give it their mugging all but I found it unbearable. The production does however look gorgeous, thanks to Richard Howell’s punchy lighting design providing some powerful imagery. Don’t you love farce? Not like this I don’t.