THEATRE W. J. Igoe If G. K. Chesterton had written a comedy about carnal capers It might have come out like Mr. Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus (Lyric Theatre). The writers have the very stuff of Engtishry in common.
From them "the secret people of England" have no secrets. I believe Mr. Bennett loves us for our dottinges, Just as G.K.C., the uncle
figure of all good scribbling Fleet
Street hacks, loved us.
To them, we are a sort of mass Mona Lisa — including Mr. William Hamilton, the Tribune Group, Mr. William Rees-Mogg, Frs. Hebblethwaite and Flanagan, Princess Anne, her horses, Mrs. Whitehouse, the Monday Club and the Kray Brothers — fascinating, enigmatic, bizarrely beautiful, infinitely farcical and various, with hints of dark undertones.
We are the people of England. The conscience is the skeleton in our cupboards and we elude examining it.
Everyman, crestfallen by age, Dr. Arthur Wicksteed, is 53, and Sir Alec Guinness makes him a sardonic playboy. The doctor has forgotten to love his wife. Wistfully, his eyes rove toward wrong turnings.
Mrs. Swabb, "a cleaning lady", is Chorus. Chesterton said that the secret people have not spoken yet. In Mrs. Swabb they find a lethally laconic spokeswoman.
Miss Patricia Hayes, who has played everyone from Henry James to Beachcomber, gives her the shape of a sparrow, with an eagle eye which, unlike those Japanese monkeys, sees,
hears and speaks the lot. the Sins of Society are Mrs. Swabb's meat, and she relishes it.
The Life Force, as Shaw put it, raises its not quite unbowed head. The doctor's sister has romantic yearnings. Shaped like a five-foot biro pencil, Constance Wicksteed is pursued by Canon Throbbing, a celibate who wishes to be "in the forefront of Anglican sexuality". But she says him nay.
To lure more virile suitors, she buys, by mail-order, a fashionably seductive bosom, and a dapper salesman arrives to fit it. He mistakes the doctor's Junoesque wife for his client and the harlequinade begins.
All the characters, save "the cleaning lady", are secret people, and Mr. Bennett hides nothing much from his audience.
There is, for example, a beautiful ' girl, demurely played by Miss Madeline Smith, who, born out of wedlock, was charitably fathered by an absent-minded peer.
Conceived in a Liverpool cellar in an air raid, she is following, so to say, in mother's footsteps. Majestically pensive, Miss Joan Sanderson, the mother, divulges that the true father was seen only by the glimmer of "a post-coital Craven A".
The company is a delight, and Sir Alec is at his best. Someone should write a thesis on this player's feet. Here the Guinness extremities come into their own, Observe the 50 per cent. Charleston he uses when moralising; and in the end, when death begins to hint, the suave Fred Astaire prance dissolving into a senile cringe. Sir Alec Is not the great Fred, but Dr. Wicksteed is "sensational".
Mr. Alan Bennett Is a magically funny man. Out of the clichés of our common culture, such as Music Hall, The British Medical Journal, The Golden Treasury, melodrama and The Sketch he has conjured an oasis of sweet satiric mirth close by the solemn desert, with voodoo sound effects, the sexploiters have made of our beloved Soho.
Take the family, especially those aged between 14 and 21.