Habeas Corpus

Written by Alan Bennett

Wednesday 14th until Saturday 17th September, at 7:30, with a matinee on Saturday 17th at 2:30 2016

Directed by Jacquie Penrose

AuthorAlan Bennett

Alan Bennett

Bennett was born in Armley in Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire. He graduated with a first-class degree in history at Oxford where he performed comedy with a number of eventually successful actors in the Oxford Revue. He remained at the university for several years, where he researched and taught Medieval History. In 1960, Bennett appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. Bennett's first stage play, Forty Years On directed by Patrick Garland was produced in 1968. Many television, stage and radio plays followed, along with screenplays, short stories, novellas, a large body of non-fictional prose and broadcasting, and many appearances as an actor.

Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others. Bennett is both unsparing and compassionate in laying bare his characters' frailties. This can be seen in his television plays for LWT in the late 1970s and the BBC in the early 1980s, and in the 1987 Talking Heads series of monologues for television which were later performed at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1992. This was a sextet of poignantly comic pieces, each of which depicted several stages in the character's decline from an initial state of denial or ignorance of their predicament, through a slow realisation of the hopelessness of their situation, and progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads pieces followed a decade later.

In his 2005 prose collection 'Untold Stories' Bennett wrote candidly and movingly of the mental illness that afflicted his mother and other family members. Much of his work draws on his Leeds background, and his stage play 'The Lady in the Van' was based on his experiences with a tramp called Miss Shepherd who lived on his driveway in several dilapidated vans for over fifteen years. In 1994 Bennett adapted his popular and much-praised 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema which received four Academy Award nominations. His critically-acclaimed The History Boys won three Laurence Olivier Awards in February 2005. Bennett himself received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre.

Bennett was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford in 1987. He was also awarded a D.Litt by the University of Leeds in 1990 and a hon PhD from Kingston in 1996. However in 1998 he refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, in protest at its accepting funding for a named chair in honour of press baron Rupert Murdoch. He also declined a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996. He earned Honorary Membership of The Coterie in the 2007 membership list. In 2008 Bennett donated his entire archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and books to the Bodleian Library. It was a gesture of thanks repaying a debt he felt he owed to the UK's social welfare system that had given him educational opportunities which his humble family background would otherwise never have afforded.

PlayHabeas Corpus

In Habeas Corpus Alan Bennett gives us, with characteristic sharpness and warmth, a glorious cast of comic misfits: the cynical Dr Wickstead and his mountainous, unloved wife - ('Now I know how the Taj Mahal must feel, alone in the moonlight...'); the reluctantly celibate Canon Throbbing; the colonially-minded Lady Rumpers fighting off lust wherever it rears its ugly head; vertically challenged Sir Percy Shorter- and many more. Not to mention Mrs Swabb, the woman what does, who oversees all with a gimlet eye ('I know when they change their undies...'). Grab the chance to enjoy this much-loved, enduring comedy of lust, love, and dropped trousers.

The Bench Production

Habeas Corpus poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


Dr Arthur WicksteedPhil Amor
Muriel WicksteedSarah Parnell
Dennis WicksteedLeigh Cunningham
Connie WicksteedPhillippa Thorne
Canon ThrobbingDavid Penrose
Mr ShanksMark Wakeman
Felicity RumpersClaire Lyne
Lady RumpersCatherine Wildsmith
Sir Percy ShorterJaspar Utley
Mr PurduePeter Clarke
Mrs SwabbIngrid Corrigan


Director Jacquie Penrose
Producer Dan Finch
Stage Manager Julie Wood
Assistant Stage Manager Daisy Dawes
Lighting Design Phil Hanley (TBC)
Sound Design Jacquie Penrose
Lighting Operation Maurice Lillie
Sound Operation Melissa Hackney
Set Design Jacquie and David Penrose

Director's Notes

Habeas Corpus? Again? I was in the first production, directed the second in 1994, and here I am, directing it again. What's the appeal? It's partly a return to a comfort zone - having recently taken on the challenges of directing Love and Information by Caryl Churchill, and an all-female Measure for Measure, both of which meant entering very new and slightly alarming territory for all of us - this task feels reassuringly familiar.

But it's more than just nostalgia or an easy ride; even though the buttoned-up world of pre-Sexual Revolution Hove now feels a long way from our own world, the characters and the comedy are timelessly enduring. The Roman Plautus would recognise the weedy love-struck youth (Dennis), and the mountainous neglected wife (Muriel), and particularly the know-it-all servant (Mrs Swabb). Audiences have been laughing at this kind of humour for two thousand years, so there's no reason why they should stop now. Writing at the end of the Sixties when sexual, social and theatrical conventions were being challenged on all sides, Bennett enjoys playing fast and loose with the traditional farce format. Like a good Brechtian he insists on an empty stage - scenery is old hat. Stuffy old ideas about motivation or through-line of action - ignore them. But he is wholly faithful to the comedy, even while there is a serious point underlying all the jokes: repression is harmful, but having it all may not be all it's cracked up to be either.

Like Dr Wicksteed this play may be a little frayed round the edges, but it's still in the game, and as our third audience for this firm old favourite, we hope you enjoy it too.

Jacquie Penrose


Portsmouth NewsJames George

Alan Bennett's 1973 masterpiece sparkled across The Spring's stage - courtesy of The Bench.

It's an animated saucy seaside postcard; it's rude, it's vulgar, and it's earthy. Bennett's hilariously funny view of life, love and sex is nicely balanced by the play's hugely poignant and even tragic view of the human condition. The pivotal role of Dr Wicksteed is nicely handled by Philip Amor and Sarah Parnell shines as his frustrated wife, Muriel. They handle the farcical dialogue particularly well.

Ingrid Corrigan is very effective as the Greek-chorus-like Mrs Swabb, Leigh Cunningham is unusually (but successfully) cast as Dennis and David Penrose's Canon Throbbing is a lesson in playing comedy. The cast as a whole need to be braver with the pace; this is farce in its purest form - slick, interlocking dialogue, people in and out and in again - and the whole thing could do with a bit more speed. Some very slight stumbles in the dialogue also make for a bumpier road for the action to follow. Jacquie Penrose's direction is just what the doctor ordered and it's all played on a beautiful crisp and colourful set.

James George, Portsmouth News, September 2016

Portsmouth Theatre.com Reviewer

'Habeas Corpus' (translated from Latin as 'You Shall Have The Body') is a comical farce written by Alan Bennett, which made its theatrical debut in London's West End back in 1973. You could, therefore, be forgiven for wondering whether a comical yet character-based piece such as this still has relevance in today's world.

The Bench Theatre present us with their take on this farcical tale of the highly dysfunctional Wicksteed family, and the events of one rather chaotic day in their household. To stage a piece such as this successfully requires exceptional skill from both the director and the actors - Bennett's work here is as sharp as it is punchy, and anything less than 100 percent commitment from all involved would see this simply fall flat on its face.

Thankfully, The Bench Theatre do not disappoint one inch. Philip Amor truly excels as the 'frayed around the edges' local GP Arthur Wicksteed, suffering a post mid-life crisis; matched exceptionally to perfection by Sarah Parnell as his long-suffering, neglected wife - both of whom chasing the lust and desire that escaped their dwindling marriage long ago. In both Armor and Parnell we are evidently witnessing the highly professional work of two fine actors, both clearly well versed in their craft.

Ingrid Corrigan is delightful as Mrs Swabb - the interfering yet loveable cleaner, delivering comical pathos with sincere ease and wonderfully sharp on her cues; her comedy timing so impressively on point from start to finish. Leigh Cunningham marvellously takes the audience by complete surprise as the Wicksteed's wimpish, hypercondriac of a son, Dennis. Cleverly disguised as a post-pubescent boy, Cunningham certainly lets her remarkable commitment and skill do the real hard work of making the audience forget that we are actually watching a female.

What truly makes this production stand out, however, is the sheer commitment that each and every actor within this cast of eleven gives to their characterisation from curtain up to curtain call. No matter which character is taking centre stage within an ensemble scene, every single actor gives full commitment to their performance no matter how great or little their dialogue. The scenes involving the entire cast together are a real treat to observe with every character so well-crafted and individual.

Director Jacquie Penrose has much to be proud of here, leading a cast of true professional merit to deliver a first class performance in the intimate space of Havant's Spring Arts and Heritage Centre. With minimal set, she truly proves that quality theatre is based soley on performance and that alone, quashing any cynicism one might have in line with my earlier point - as there most certainly IS still relevance for a piece such as this in today's world. As long as The Bench Theatre continue to deliver these 5 star productions, long may these pieces continue.

Portsmouth Theatre.com, September 2016

RemotegoatJill Lawrie

A rollicking saucy seaside farce

Alan Bennett's "Habeas Corpus" is clearly a firm favourite with Bench Theatre, this being their third production since 1997. Bennett is a much loved raconteur achieving instant fame back in 1960 with a satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe" at the Edinburgh Festival alongside Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller. Other highly acclaimed works by this prolific writer include "The History Boys" and "The Lady in the Van" so memorably portrayed by Maggie Smith.

"Habeas Corpus", literally translated as "you must have the body", is a rollicking saucy seaside farce full of lust, mistaken identities, dropped trousers and rampant libidos as the 'permissive society' gets underway. An enthusiastic cast, just shy of a dozen colourful mis-fits portray the Wicksteed household, a Colonialist and her daughter, a leading light in the medical profession and the celibate Canon Throbbing.

This highly entertaining production is directed by Jacquie Penrose (for the second time) and she also played Mrs Swabb in 1977 but now admirably taken on by Ingrid Corrigan. Mark Wakeman can be relied upon for a great comic performance and he does not disappoint playing the false breast fitter/salesman (Mr Shanks). His trouser-less escapades and frantic Polaroid photography of Muriel Wicksteed positioning herself in a variety of beguiling poses, was hilarious. Sarah Parnell gives a standout central performance as the monumental Muriel desperate to seduce and ensnare a new lover while maintaining an air of respectability. Good support too from Phillippa Thorne for a spirited rendition of the dowdy flat-chested spinster Connie Wicksteed brought to life when she fulfils her ambition to enlarge her chest! Leigh Cunningham revels in the portrayal of nerdy hypochondriac Dennis Wicksteed rapidly falling for the attractive dumb blond leggy stereotype Felicity Rumpers with Claire Lyne relishing the part, and brilliantly clad in knee-high white patent boots, skimpy dress and false eyelashes.

A humorous, light-hearted parody greatly enjoyed by a capacity audience and endorsing the wealth of talent to be found in this Havant based theatre group.

Jill Lawrie, Remotegoat, September 2016

Production Photographs