This early Alan Bennett play, revived by Patrick Marber, is an odd one. It’s a farce about sexual frustration among the middle classes. But with meta-theatrical touches that play with the genre, it’s an attempt to write this kind of comedy in a different way (the lack of a set tells you that much). Along with crudity, poetic moments focus on mortality. And there are touches of a revue, too, complete with songs. It’s novel, experimental even. But Habeas Corpus is more interesting than it is funny.
There are laughs. The sillier jokes are good and have aged best. Darker moments, leading to the cautious billing of the show as “from a less enlightened age” have immoral doctors and queasy Ortonesque moments. But Bennett is appropriately harsh about bad conduct. And, impressively, the women in the show are as sexual as the men. Yet those laugh-out-loud moments come from the cast performances rather than the script.
Our guide to proceedings, the cleaning lady Mrs Swabb, is great fun (and Ria Jones excellent in the part). Dr and Mrs Wicksteed, and son Dennis, are all looking for love and easy enough to laugh at… initially. But their desperation is double-edged, and strong performances from Jasper Britton, Catherine Russell and Dan Wolff (standing in for Thomas Josling) mean we come to care for them. Does feeling empathy make us laugh less?
It isn’t unreasonable to expect a comedy to be fun. But if that’s all you require, Habeas Corpus might leave you disappointed. Lust here is for life as much as sex, and there’s a weighty, existential, edge. There’s also an awful lot of loneliness in the play. Bennett’s mix of comedy and melancholy may keep an audience on its toes, but Habeas Corpus doesn’t allow relaxation into a really good time.
This is a Christmas treat for theatre lovers that, thankfully, is carrying on into the new year. Director Nikolai Foster’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is produced especially for a lockdown audience and has the clever idea of using all areas of the theatre for filming. Foster gives us a great show and makes you want to visit his venue at the same time.
Like all good revivals, Foster reminds us of the show’s strengths – in particular, what a sturdy piece of musical theatre Sunset Boulevard is.
The strong story, based on the Billy Wilder film, makes a drama of a former movie star, Norma Desmond, in later life. Sophisticated lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton take us deep into the character and motives of Norma and her new beau, Joe. Lloyd Webber’s score is both adventurous and lush, and musical motifs powerfully build while stand-out songs are plentiful.
Them there eyes
From such a firm base, Foster benefits from a fantastic cast. Both Ria Jones as Norma and Danny Mac as Joe know these roles well, and it shows. The casting (David Grindrod) is superb: Jones looks great in a turban and them there eyes are perfect for the number With One Look. Mac’s matinee idol air fits the Hollywood scenario.
Jones is angry and serious – not easy with such a camp character. Mad, sad Norma is to be pitied for her “folly” and her “scrambled brain”, but Jones provides moments of imperiousness to confirm that Norma is a figure to be reckoned with. And she provides magic. When it comes to the power of the movies and imagination, the years slip from her face, and Norma becomes an innocent ingénue.
This is Mac’s show, though. Joe is a great role, a partial narrator (think Nick Carraway) who becomes a victim: his claim to be an observer of Norma – “watching her sunset” – raises questions from the start. Mac’s mix of his character as an “uppity hack” and “stony-hearted” is balanced by moments that show an ambition for an artistic career that hasn’t, really, disappeared. And Mac’s singing is simply wonderful.
Both leads are aided by superb foils. Molly Lynch’s Betty provides a perky love interest that is intelligent and complex for Joe. Adam Pearce’s bass voice is a knockout and his role as Max Von Mayerling is developed magnificently.
Ready for your close up?
There’s no way to not enjoy this show or these performances. But a reservation has to be raised about the filming.
Seeing the orchestra (performing from the stalls) and camera staff at work adds an element of theatricality – nice – but the editing is sometimes manic. Points of view syncopated to the score is fair enough. But too many cuts to different cameras make it hard to appreciate the work of choreographer Lee Proud (in my experience, that’s a shame). Split screens also confuse. Graphics overlaid on to the action are just unnecessary.
Such caveats fade when considering how Foster has used his theatre. Taking the action into the auditorium works well. Setting scenes ‘back stage’ makes for great moments. Posing Joe in a bank of seats, watching events, then joining in the action is a perfect reflection of his ambiguous role. And to have Norma alone in the circle for her entrance and finale is a stroke of genius.
For a filmed show, Sunset Boulevard makes you crave to get back into a theatre in 2021. And you’ve got to love that! There’s a sense of pride in this very smart-looking venue that makes me regret never having visited it. Given other strong work, such as My Beautiful Launderetteand What the Butler Saw, that Curve has shown during lockdown, a trip to Leicester might be my resolution for a sunnier 2021.
This recorded concert, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a legendary show, boasts a special introduction from its composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Fans have the chance to hear some great new performances from a strong cast. And it’s all in aid of good causes: Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Acting For Others and the National AIDS Trust.
I’m not a huge admirer of the piece, but there are plenty of good songs. While Schwartz knows variety is needed, both in style and emotional tempo, there aren’t enough stand-out numbers in a score that’s a little too easy on the ear. Thankfully, there’s no sense that any of the performers share my reservations. Among the West End stars assembled, it’s great to see and hear talents such as Alison Jiear, Jenna Russell and Sam Tutty. George Carter’s musical direction is of the highest quality.
Director Michael Strassen tries hard to tackle the fluid nature of the song cycle format. While original productions presented parables, here inserts reveal abstract concepts of what the songs are ‘about’: Prepare, Hope, Faith, even Class. The approach provides some structure but conflicts with the inclusion of photographs from the present day, mostly of care workers, that feel proscriptive. And Godspell’s religious content is strangely absent. It takes a while to remember that John-Michael Tebelak’s book is loosely based on the Gospel story. As a result, Darren Day’s emotive performance as Jesus ends up disconnected and rather odd.
Although a smaller problem, the performers are not helped by the video work in this production. The variety of backgrounds is nice, but the split scenes, phone screens (of course) and graphics are frequently, well, naff. Especially disappointing is their intrusion in Ruthie Henshall’s number, Turn Back, O Man, performed in the bath! With a rubber duck on board, we don’t need bubbles added – the performance alone is enough.
Another notable exception – some humour – comes with a fine performance from Ria Jones of Learn Your Lessons Well. Otherwise, the tone is earnest, dry even. Plenty of effort is made to inject energy (Jiear is especially good at this) but as a collection of short films, momentum never takes off. Much of this is not Strassen’s fault – it’s a reflection of the show itself. While it always sounds top notch, the piece is downright monotonous.