Habeas Corpus

Written by Alan Bennett

Thurs 14th July - Sat 16th July & Tues 19th July - Sat 23rd July 1994

Directed by Jacquie Penrose

Mismanaged lust - mistaken identity - dropped trousers...'Habeas Corpus' has all the ingredients of a classic farce, spiced with the warmth and humanity of Alan Bennett's razor-sharp wit.

And this is a second helping - a revival of the first ever production by The Bench at the Old Town Hall Arts Centre, part of the 25th Anniversary Celebration.

AuthorAlan Bennett

Alan Bennett (b1934)

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

Habeas Corpus was first performed at the Lyric Theatre in London on 10 May 1973, with Alec Guinness and Margaret Courtenay in the lead roles. Bennett's first play, written in 1973, it is a comedy set in Brighton in the 1960s where the lust and longing of the permissive society has well and truly taken hold of the apparently respectable Wicksteed family.

The aging Dr. Arthur Wicksteed pursues his nubile patient, Felicity Rumpers. Wicksteed's wife Muriel lusts after the charming head of the BMA, Sir Percy Shorter. Shorter as well as being Wicksteed's old rival, turns out to be Felicity's father - the result of an under-the-table liaison during an air-raid with Lady Rumpers, her mother. Meanwhile, Wicksteed's spinster-sister Connie, ashamed of her flat-chestedness, has schemes of her own. Like some saucy Magill seaside postcard as retouched by Magritte, or an end-of-the-pier romp reorganised by Orton, the piece shows how a collection of stock types from Hove find themselves propelled into the permissive society with the arrival of a false-breast fitter from Leatherhead. Identities are mistaken, the wrong knockers admiringly fondled, and libidos burst out of enforced hibernation.

The Bench Production

Habeas Corpus poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977. It was staged as part of the Bench Theatre's 25th Anniversary celebrations held that year.

The company had staged this play for the first time in 1977 at Havant Arts Centre, the first of the Bench Theatre plays to be staged at their new home.


Dr Arthur WicksteedDavid Penrose
Muriel WicksteedIngrid Corrigan
Dennis WicksteedNeil Kendall
Connie WicksteedAlyse Ashton
Canon ThrobbingJohn Batstone
ShanksDamon Wakelin
Felicity RumpersSara Evans
Delia, Lady RumpersSally Hartley
Sir Percy ShorterJohn O'Hanlon
Mr PurdueTim Taylor
Mrs SwabbJude Salmon


Director Jacquie Penrose
Stage Manager Lindy Nettleton
Lighting Tony Ford
Sound Kathy O'Hanlon
Handbill Design Pete Woodward
Set Construction Tim Taylor
Front of House Sally Hartley
Rehearsal Understudy
to almost everybody
Tim Taylor

Director's Notes

Farces, particularly classic British farces, can often be somewhat cruel affairs, driven often by fear and dislike. But Alan Bennett's glorious romp is not fearful - it celebrates human weakness, enjoys the silliness of which we are all capable, and looks coolly at the inescapable fact that life is fatal.

In the best traditions of farce it employs archetypes that go all the way back to the Roman Plautus - the middle-aged Malcontent - the voracious wife - the buxom wench - the drippy love-lorn youth - the strutting cockerel - and the crafty servant who manipulates them all - and observes them all with a sharp but forgiving eye.

Presented in a simple fluid style that preserves the dash of farce while avoiding the clutter of naturalism it remains as fresh and funny as it did when written more than 20 years ago.

Jacquie Penrose


The NewsNeil Pugmire

Cracking Romp from Bennett

Unrequited lust, mistaken identity, dropped trousers - there's even a sex-obsessed vicar called Canon Throbbing for goodness sake. Habeas Corpus puts us slap bang in the middle of classic British farce territory with the usual round-up of suspects: lecherous husband, buxom wench, voracious wife, mousey spinster, and artificial breast fitter. The fast-moving plot includes the doctor who touches up his patient and the tradesman who ends up being seduced - plenty of "Where's your trousers?" and "More tea, vicar?"

But this being an Alan Bennett play, there is so much more. For a start the conventional sitcom drawing room set is dumped in favour of a plain stage, making everything so much slicker. Then there's the sparkling dialogue and brilliant characterisation, so sharp and closely-observed you want to list in slow motion to take it all in. And theres a surreal edge. Bennett enables the characters to step out of the farce and comment on their situation, giving it almost an air of parody.

Wonderful stuff, then, and well performed by Bench Theatre which has revived this, its first show at the Old Town Hall, to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. Marvellous ensemble playing and a remorselessly fast pace make this a cracking romp, with Jacquie Penrose deservedly taking the directorial plaudits.

The News, 15th July 1994

Production Photographs