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Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett at Bolton Octagon

Published by: Caroline May on 24th Oct 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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Here in Manchester theatrical farces are as thick on the ground as autumn leaves.  Last week the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors sold out at the Lowry, and this week Bolton Octagon is reviving Alan Bennett’s clever comedy about the permissive society.

The household of Dr Wicksteed is, superficially, a respectable middle-class establishment.  However, while the insatiable doctor slakes his lust on his prettiest patients, his wife, son and sister are all quivering with sexual frustration.  But when a colonial widow, the widow’s nubile daughter, the president of the BMA, and a trained fitter of bust-enhancing appliances all arrive in town, the skeletons in Dr Wicksteed’s cupboard come home to roost.

Although Habeas Corpus is one of his earliest stage works, the classic Alan Bennett traits are already well-established.  The characters regularly vent their “inner voices” in a self-conscious manner that goes way beyond an occasional “aside” to the audience.  And the playwright’s arch northern tones and slyly tweaked literary references are also present and correct.

The concept of the production is truly brilliant - a Donald McGill postcard brought to life - and Ciaran Bagnall’s pared-down yet stylish design has “award-winning” written all over it.  Colourful beach huts along the back of the stage provide nine different entrances, with the characters popping in and out of them like demented cuckoos from their clocks.  Another stroke of genius is Howard Ward’s boater-wearing seaside organist, whose musical accompaniment (and knowing winks to the stalls) is just this side of Les Dawson.

Russell Dixon plays Mrs Swaab – and not for the first time, having performed the same role at the Library Theatre in 1976 (although it was Alan Bennett himself who originally dragged up for the part).  There are hints of Russell Dixon’s Lady Bracknell in Mrs Swaab’s pursed-lipped disapproval; and Francesca Ryan’s Lady Rumpers is another interpretation of Lady Bracknell, only in khaki.

Rob Edwards’ performance as the dodgy Dr Wicksteed occasionally resembles a pop-eyed Prince Andrew; Eve Steele is very good as the doctor’s under-developed sister Connie, sporting a range of over-the-top expressions worthy of a Carry On character; and Colin Connor is on his usual excellent (and versatile) form as the trouser-less Mr Shanks.

This was only the second night of David Thacker’s production, and when the pace has speeded up it will be a real treat.

Habeas Corpus is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 12 November 2011
Tickets: from £9.50
Performances: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
www.octagonbolton.co.uk

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