Ria Jones on ‘Habeas Corpus’s' timeliness and the joy of comedy plays
Watch the news at the moment and it's like seeing a farce unfold. There's exaggerated stories, nobody trusts each other, and everyone shakes their heads in disbelief. But what if crazy turns of events were actually meant to happen? When we spoke with Ria Jones about Habeas Corpus, Alan Bennett's 1970s comedy play being staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory this winter, it's apparent that life is imitating art.
"It's quite bizarre how [the dialogue] is so current to a point where the audience feel they've been put in because of the current climate" said Jones. Habeas Corpus is set in one man's — Doctor Wicksteed — doctors surgery and his home in Hove, and is all about love, relationships, and growing older with younger females around. After appearing in many musicals, Jones is now venturing into plays, appearing as Mrs. Swabb in the first London production of Habeas Corpus in 25 years.
We spoke to Jones about how Habeas Corpus has remained a timely play, the poetic moments in Alan Bennett's playwriting, and embracing her Welsh accent on stage.
You play Mrs Swabb, the cleaning lady and narrator. Can you tell us a little bit more about your character?
Yeah she's the cleaning lady, the busibody, she thinks she knows everything about everyone. She's been working for the Wicksteeds for years and is part of the furniture. She's the narrator of the piece as well, so I set the whole characters up and interweave. She's great fun to play.
I played the role of Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques: The Musical, directed by Victoria Wood, so I had a bit of experience playing a cleaning lady before. I wanted to bring my own personality to the role and during my audition, Patrick Marber, asked me to read the part with a Welsh accent. For the first time ever, I'm playing a role in my native accent. I know so many friends, aunts, and people and think of them in my head when I'm playing her. The dialogue was originally with a Northern accent in mind, but the dialogue lends beautifully to the Welsh accent.
The Welsh accent is very sibilant, so when you get your teeth around the words, you might spray others with your saliva. I see the front rows reapply their facemasks, and it does make me smile a bit. It's lovely to embrace my native accent for the first time in 40 years.
You've been in countless West End shows. What attracted you to doing Habeas Corpus at the Menier?
It ticks so many boxes. I've always wanted to work at the Menier. I've always wanted to do a play. I love comedy. I love Alan Bennett, and when I heard Patrick Marber's name involved, there's so many ticks. When I received the call to say I'd been offered the role, it was a no-brainer.
Having had the last 18 months where we've all had time to reflect on life in general and where my career is going, parts aren't as available. So I wanted a challenge and another string to my bow. Hopefully this will open up a few more doors within plays and comedy.
Habeas Corpus is one of Alan Bennett's most well-known plays. Why do you think Alan Bennett's plays have stood the test of time?
I think he's just an honest writer, and captures the mood of the day. He writes about real people. Even though these characters are heightened, I know people like nearly every one of the characters in the play. I think his way with words is so beautiful. There's poignant moments in the show, and then the next minute, you'll be off on a crazy, farcical world.
I believe it's the only farce he's ever written — it really is a farce of its time. Even some of the lines today, it's quite bizarre how they are so current to a point where the audience feel they've been put in because of the current climate, which is amazing and a proof of such wonderful writing.
Are there any comical moments you struggle to get through without laughing?
Not just yet, but when they go wrong, things can be very funny. We've all got a great sense of humour. When you try to say dialogue really fast in rehearsals, like in everyday life, you get your words muddled — some very funny words come out! During a performance, none of us would have kept it together.
The way that the Menier is set up is that when you're stage right, you have to stay there. A lot of the show, I'm sat on stage right so you watch the show every night, and I enjoy watching these fellow actors just give their brilliant performances. It's brilliant to watch the play evolve. Each audience reaction has been different, so we're still learning, and we'll continue to learn until we finish in February how different audiences react to different moments.
The audience know when it was written, so they get that it was the humour of the day. You couldn't get away with a lot of it now. We just want people to have a good laugh. We need it, and we still need it. It's lovely to hear laughter in the theatre at the moment.
What do you enjoy most about the production?
I love being part of a team again. We really are a lovely group of people. We're so supportive and just want to put on the best show. We want to show off Alan's work to the best of our ability. I'm loving being part of a company. I'm sharing a dressing room for the first time in years. The five of us girls [Katie Bernstein, Kirsty Besterman, Caroline Langrishe, and Catherine Russell] just have the best fun. It's so lovely to be part of a company again having not been in one for over two years. We're all there for the right reasons. We just want to create great theatre and make people feel happy and good.
Habeas Corpus mainly takes place in and around the Wicksteed's house/surgery, set in Hove. If the Habeas Corpus story had taken place during the pandemic, where all the characters were stuck in one place, how do you think the characters would have coped?
Oh gosh! Mrs. Swabb probably wouldn't get her head around wearing a mask. It'd probably be on her forehead rather than around her nose. But because the play is set in a doctor's surgery, it would be very funny, although they'd probably be shut down over lockdown.
The play is set over two days, so I think it's almost in a way how it would be if we were stuck together. All these secrets come out and these past loves turn up. It would be fun actually to set it in the present day. But it's not actually dissimilar to what was written! It's quite uncanny.
Photo credit: Ria Jones (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
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