Habeas Corpus

The Alton College Theatre Company cemented their reputation for high quality theatre with their version of ‘Habeas Corpus’ by Alan Bennett.

The performance was praised as ‘extremely hilarious entertainment provided by a superbly talented cast of 10 A Level Drama students from Alton College directed by Kevin Davey.’

The play is a farcical comedy that opened in London in 1973. It has been updated and adapted for the modern-day audience, addressing various domestic misunderstandings and the absurdity of many middle-classes social conventions.

Habeas Corpus1

Below are two reviews, the first written by Sue Cansfield from the Alton Herald and the second written by Alton College Student Jack Milam.

Habeas Corpus Brings Forth a Fine Performance

Sue Cansfield, Alton Herald

Alton College drama team under the direction of Kevin Davey have again come up with another winning production to add to their many successes over the years. Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus, a legal term but literally meaning ‘bring forth the body’, must have been quite a challenge for the sixth form students, but each and every one of the ten strong cast got under the skin of their character to give an assured and well honed performances. Not easy to achieve when the youthful cast were for the most part shoe-horned into roles meant for those triple their age.

My only criticism would be that the students were so confident, so focused and so determined to keep up the pace that their rapid delivery tended at times to override Bennett’s witty script, despite the young actor’s excellent diction. Unfortunately not only were the prose subjected to verbal velocity, but also the verse which really needed to be handled with care.

The small stage area in the College’s Berkoff Theatre was used to the maximum with am minimal and imaginative set.  Habeas Corpus, described as a farcical comedy, was first performed in London in 1973 has during the ensuing years become a tried and tested favourite for both professionals and amateurs. As with many of its genre it is a wry send up of the middle classes who Bennett perceives as a load of weirdoes; especially where their sexual activities are concerned.

Kevin Davey wanted the comedy of this production to resonate with a modern audience and therefore edited and adapted certain areas of the play to balance the age Bennett wrote the piece with the society and that we live in today. This he achieved without resorting to gratuitous permissiveness or losing sight of the play’s original humour which emanates from the usual mistaken identities, misunderstandings and the repressed sexual drive of a superficially restrained and polite society.

The society, in this play, being the cynical, but sexually active general practitioner Arthur Wicksteed (Freddie Morrison), his wife Muriel (Izzy Glinn) who still hankers after her old flame, the now eminent  President of the Medical Association Sir Percy Shorter (Andy Plom) and the couple’s lack lustre hypochondriac son (Will Sylvester) who is convinced he has a life limiting illness. A condition which makes him a desirable catch for the not very Honourable Felicity Rumpers (Merri Leston). Then there is the doctor’s frumpish flat-chested sister Connie Wicksteed (Tori Bottomley) who has been engaged for ten years to the less than stimulating Canon Throbbing (Arnie Voysey).

In the hope of improving her prospects Connie sends off for a breast enhancing appliance, but when the fitter, a certain Denzil Shanks (Ian Richardson), who mistakes the identity of his customer there are some disastrous results. The woman who does for the family, Mrs Swabb, narrates the story with the all-seeing eye of a domestic. Liv Davidson’s take on this character reminded me of Mrs Clackett in Michael Frayne’s hilarious farce Noises Off. There was also a great performance from Roisin Tarrant playing the frightfully strident Lady Rumpers, a tour de force who is not quite as classy as she would have you think.

All the cast were extremely competent, but if I had to give an Oscar it would go to Andy Plom for his pompous Sir Percy Shorter.  I got the impression that Andy is a natural comedian who really made the most of this preposterous little man.

Not only is Kevin Davey is to be congratulated for his direction and staging of this multilayered play, but for also for the high standard he achieved from his young and enthusiastic cast.  

Sue Cansfield­

‘Habeas Corpus’- The Alton College Theatre Company

Jack Milam

It was a week before Christmas; snow filled the air outside as theatregoers warmed themselves inside the Berkoff Theatre for The Alton College Theatre Company’s production of ‘Habeas Corpus’ by Alan Bennett. What followed was a night of extremely hilarious entertainment provided by a superbly talented cast of 10 students from Alton College directed by Kevin Davey.

The play is a farcical comedy that opened in London in 1973. Updated and adapted for a modern-day audience for this performance, it addresses various domestic misunderstandings and absurdity of many British social conventions of the English middle-classes. As Kevin Davey writes in his programme notes: ‘the skills the actors bring to their roles are quite considerable, given that many of the roles within the play are double their own age!’ The term ‘Habeas Corpus’ is a legal expression demanding the presence of someone in court; in its most literal translation it means ‘bring forth the body’, hinting at the play’s black humour and treatment of its themes of lust, sexual repression and marital jealousies!

As the show begins, we meet Arthur Wicksteed (played confidently by Freddie Morrison) an ageing medical practitioner working in his surgery in Brighton, as he sets the tone of the play with a humorous opening monologue regarding his patients that is cut short by the call of his needy wife, Muriel, (Isabelle Glinn, in a brilliant performance beyond her years).

Mrs Swabb (depicted by Liv Davidson), whose appearances on stage always seemed to garner laughs from the audience, then introduces us to the other characters of the play in a superb game-show style sequence. Mrs Swabb states how she is the housewife to the Wicksteeds and representative of the working classes; Alan Bennett writes her as a narrator of sorts.

Then there is Dennis Wicksteed (innocently played by Will Sylvester), son of Arthur and Muriel, who is unfortunately a hypochondriac claiming he has a mere three months to live. Auntie of Dennis and Sister of Arthur is Connie Wicksteed (Tori Bottomley, who offers the character a loveable immaturity). All Connie wants is a larger bust in order to better attract male attention. Canon Throbbing (Arnie Voysey), a vicar celibate for the past 10 years, wishes to marry Connie; his sexual frustration and the cheeky performance of Voysey resulted in some hilarious moments and brilliant lines.

New to the area, Lady Rumpers (elegantly yet imposingly played by Roisin Tarrant) and her daughter Felicity Rumpers (Merri Leston) arrive. Throwing the attractive young Felicity into a selection of lustful male characters only serves to add to the inevitable farcical twists and turns that follow; Arthur Wicksteed in particular takes a shine to her youthful charm. We also meet Arther’s professional rival, and Muriel’s former love interest, Sir Percy Shorter (an absolutely fantastic role for the hilarious Andy Plom) and finally, Denzil Shanks (played with perfect swaggering sleaziness by Ian Richardson). Shanks is the fitter of a device Connie orders to increase the size of her breasts. Naturally, he becomes just one of many characters caught up in a series of mistaken identities and misunderstandings that form the basis of some unforgettable moments.

One of these said memorable scenes involves Percy Shorter being proved guilty of being seduced and then proposing to Connie Wicksteed (such is the impact of her new breast enhancing device). Shorter denies all accusations, as the Connie now in the room is far less well endowed as when he encountered her earlier; to add more confusion, she is horrified to find out he is not in fact Denzil Shanks as she had originally assumed. In an immediate retaliation, Shorter declares to bring down his rival, Arthur, on the charge of indecent relations with a patient (Felicity) and, slightly humiliated, storms from the room shouting declaration of Arthurs impending professional demise. The pace and energy that is built throughout this scene and the great hilarity of Andy Plom’s character, warranted raucous applause as Percy Shorter exited stage.
As the audience walked out of The Berkoff Theatre, plaudits for the show abounded. The number of people present at the last night’s performance, who had purchased a ticket purely on the strength of previous productions, is a testament to The Alton College Theatre Company’s reputation for high quality theatre. Quite simply, the Company’s productions keep getting better and better each year!

Jack MIlam

Interested in studing Drama at Alton College? Why not find out more information about our courses:

A Level Drama and Theatre Studies

BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Performing Arts