Somewhere between the loving and the lying, the kissing and the crying, and the living and the dying is a British farce called Habeas Corpus. Written by Alan Bennett and Directed by Pauline Griller-Mitchell, this tarty little romp is now appearing on the stage at the Greenbelts Arts Center for just a brief period of time. With Doctors, and lovers, revenge and sex, there’s a sprinkling of silliness for all who enjoy adult-themed comedies. With all of the lovers’ confusions and missing trousers going about, this must be what they mean by the permissive society.
By keeping the set design to a minimalist approach, Director Pauline Griller-Mitchell depends solely on the other design elements of the production to welcome the audience into the Wicksteed home in Sussex, England in the early 1970’s. Sound Designer Nick Sampson and Lighting Designer Jim Robertson take care of shifting locations out to the pier near the ocean with their subdued blue lighting and shore sound effects, eliminating the need for fancy changes in scenery.
The costumes, designed by Linda Swann, are rather fitting for an upper-class family of the early 70’s. Elegant dresses in mild colors that don’t pop or scream off the body and clean pressed suits for the men, even if the majority of the male characters spend large portions of the show running around without their trousers on. Swann’s simple tastes give the audience hints of the period without overwhelming us with it.
The production’s biggest flaw is the comic timing that is worked into the overall pacing. There are many scenes where dialogue exchanges need to occur more naturally and with a quicker pace. Lines are often delivered, completed, and paused before the next line is started rather than jumping on top of each other as is often the case in farce. Many of the funnier moments that could be achieved in this production, based on the dialogue alone, are missed because of pacing issues. Playwright Alan Bennett’s inclusion of rhyming verse also seems to throw some characters for a spell, Mrs. Swabb (Jennifer Harvey) in particular, and creates awkward moments that feel out of place.
Accents are crucial in a British farce and there are some characters who do them exceptionally well. On the whole the cast does not have consistency with their accents, but characters like Arthur Wicksteed, his son Dennis, his sister Constance, and the Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity carry strong, albeit varied, handles on their English delivery.
Lady Rumpers (Carleigh Jones) is a frigid haughty aristocrat who makes her larger than life presence felt when she is presented into a scene, as ladies of importance are introduced and never storm in. Jones has a clipped snappy delivery of her acerbic lines, but also presents a mellow side to the character once the appropriate plot twist has been revealed, displaying her versatility. Rumpers’ daughter Felicity (Holly Trout) is a touch wayward but sinfully sweet, particularly in her interactions with Dennis (Winard Britt) Trout and Britt have a terribly charming awkward chemistry between their characters, making for humorous instances, particularly once Dennis’ hypochondria comes into play. Trout also slips out of the lecherous clutches of the household patriarch on several occasions, her facial expressions while doing so absolutely priceless.
Britt, as the troubled youth, is astounding in creating a noticeable character that stands out among the rest. His physicality is mousy, inwardly clutched and his mannerisms follow suit. His neurotic obsessive nature is a brilliant display of the character’s hypochondriacal tendencies, and adds extra moments of laughter to the farce.
Ever the sullen and melancholy aunt, Constance (Jenn Robinson) has an outlying storyline all her own that brings a world of quirky characters into the Wicksteed household. Robinson’s character’s unfortunate engagement to Canon Throbbing (Ted Culler) gives her a chance to hilariously engage with all sorts of men, including the wicked Percy Shorter (Ned Read). Robinson, Culler, and Read have one of the funniest accusatory exchanges in the production and their delivery of it is impressive.
Read, as the obnoxious little irritant, creates quite a presence for his characters despite Percy Shorter’s woeful stature. His dancing with Robinson, and later with Jones, adds a great deal of hilarity to the performance. Constantly plotting revenge on the patriarch of the house, Arthur (Sandy Irving) there is a great deal more comedy to come from his character as the plot unfolds.
It’s Sandy Irving, heading up the farce, that keeps the audience on their toes. His unabashed lecherous tendencies, which often wax fluidly poetic in the form of rhyming verse, make him terribly disgusting and yet inexplicably attractive simultaneously. Handling one-liners and long monologues with equal vim and vigor, Irving understands his character and plays him well within the confines of the farce. His delivery of the rhyming verses of solely a sexual nature are simply a scream; Irving is a titillating delight in this role.
Remember that he whose lust lasts, lasts the longest. Don’t wait too long to get your tickets, lest you be left lusting for it to come around to the Greenbelt Arts Center again.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.