“some of the laughs are misplaced today, but with a nod to its self-mocking humour, there is no doubt it is entertaining”
There is a jet-black coffin centre stage throughout Patrick Marber’s staging of Alan Bennett’s seminal seventies farce, “Habeas Corpus”. Symbolic or not of whether this revival will survive the kiss of life Marber smothers it with, its prominence is a distraction rather than a subtle reminder of Bennett’s underlying themes of mortality. “Habeas Corpus” is a play with two personalities; at once naturalistic, even touching the human chord, yet at the same time, a farce. The quiet, introverted musings on life are nearly always drowned out by the brash energy and seaside naughtiness of the comedy.
And energy is what this production certainly has, the key ingredient of farce – along with the extra marital shenanigans, mistaken identities, absurd situations, challenged respectability, and characters without their trousers. We are in GP Arthur Wicksteed’s home surgery in Hove. Richard Hudson’s blank, stark set allow us to imagine the draping of misogyny and sexism with which the doctor has furnished his house. We are introduced to the players by Ria Jones’ Mrs Swabb. Wicksteed would be a far more successful physician if he pursued his career as diligently as he pursues women. His wife, Muriel, is more assertive while his son is a timid hypochondriac who uses a fake terminal illness as a chat up line. Enter Connie, who has ordered a false pair of breasts to boost her confidence. Lady Rumpus is an expatriate, colonial figure, protective of her daughter Felicity while Canon Throbbing is a frustrated celibate who… well – his name says it all. Then there is Mr Shanks who arrives to fit Connie’s breasts, Sir Percy Shorter, a leading light in the medical profession out for revenge and Mr Purdue, a sick man who hangs over the proceedings like (and sometimes in) a noose.
Jasper Britton adds a bit of charm to his dated salaciousness. There is enough irony there to forgive him (the actor rather than the character). Catherine Russell’s Muriel has a light-hearted sparkle that occasionally flickers to reveal a more profound hurting. Kirsty Besterman is a joy to watch as the ‘spinster’ who believes the only way to a man’s heart is through her body; a tenet that is constantly reinforced by the men in the piece. Mercifully the entire cast play on the dated perceptions and, again, we forgive. The sheer entertainment value carries us along.
The sensation is like revisiting, after many years, a favourite pub that has since been refurbished. The new décor clashes with the fondness of memory. Marber has added a few twists that jar. Occasionally the poetic language bizarrely morphs into surreal song routines. The sadness and the cruelty behind the comedy are more hidden than they should be. Yet nostalgia is unreliable. Perhaps Bennett’s text was flawed back in the seventies. Perhaps not. Perhaps it still isn’t, and it is the times we live in that force us to judge it unfavourably. But that is another debate. If “Habeas Corpus” is a farce it certainly fulfils its purpose. Yes, some of the laughs are misplaced today, but with a nod to its self-mocking humour, there is no doubt it is entertaining. We just need to avoid politicisation for a couple of hours, be aware that all concerned have their tongue in their cheek, and enjoy.
“There is no denying, however, the zest, energy, and electricity on the stage”
The Royal Family has long been prey for satirists; ever since they stopped chopping your head off for disrespectful behaviour. From eighteenth century paintings, in literature, the press; through to today’s many outlets on the small and big screen and on stage. It is only expected, and to their credit, the Royals accept it now and often go along with it. ‘Spitting Image’ aside, the most successful place them in an alternative scenario. Sue Townsend’s ‘The Queen and I’ deprives the House of Windsor of its royal status and makes them live like normal citizens, while Mike Bartlett’s sharply observant play, ‘King Charles III’, centres on the accession of King Charles and the dissolving of parliament.
“The Windsors: Endgame” follows suit with its ‘what if’ premise, although the writers George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler-Moore tackle the subject with blunter instruments. But what is lacking in nuance is made up for in humour and topicality. I confess to not having watched any of the Channel Four television series that spawned the stage transfer, but understand that the fiction was based around real life events. On stage at the (appropriately) Prince of Wales Theatre, reality seems to be constantly wandering off, only stopped short of disappearing completely by the numerous topical gags that fire through the script.
The Queen has abdicated, and Prince Charles finally gets his hands on the crown. Not without giving us a song first. Harry Enfield clearly relishes the role of the deluded Charles, with echoes of Alan Bennett’s ‘Madness of King George’. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Camilla is one of the highlights, a mix of Cruella de Ville and Lady Macbeth. Matthew Cottle opens the evening as Edward, throwing in jokes about his stint as Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s production assistant (tea-boy). We are rapidly introduced to pretty much the whole household thereafter. It obviously focuses on Wills and Harry, Kate and Meghan; but Fergie, Andrew, Beatrice and Eugenie are all in the writers’ sightline. The feuds are as exaggerated as the characterisation and the jokes are presented with a fanfare that makes them impossible to miss.
The lack of subtlety places Michael Fentiman’s production in pantomime territory. Albeit not one for all the family. But profanity and sexual innuendo cannot really disguise the predictability of the jokes. Unfortunately, what it does disguise, even dismantles, is the potential cleverness of the plot. But then again, I am obviously missing the point and I concede gracefully, being surrounded by a packed house that is lapping up every moment.
And it has to be admitted there is a lot to cherish here, and once you’re in the mood you start enjoying it as much as the cast are. Kara Tointon and Crystal Condie are delightful as the sparring Kate and Meghan; matched by Ciarán Owens and Tom Durant-Pritchard as Wills and Harry, torn between love and duty and family responsibility (throwing in a bit of accidental wife-swapping too!). The characters on the side-lines are the more interesting: Sophie-Louise Dann is a wonderful Fergie, ultimately standing by Tim Wallers’ naughty but nice cad Andrew; while Jenny Rainsford and Eliza Butterworth are great fun to watch as Beatrice and Eugenie.
Less fun are the impromptu musical numbers which crop up incongruously, and merely serve to repeat many of the jokes that are already in danger of being wrung dry. There is no denying, however, the zest, energy, and electricity on the stage. Try as you might to find fault, you cannot help giving in eventually, and breaking into a reluctant smile. That’s when you realise you are way behind the rest of the audience who have been smiling from the start. Even if The Windsors aren’t for you, give them a break. You’re probably the odd one out.