West End rediscovers the pure joy of farce (and missing trousers)

The stage is set like a hotel bedroom where a scantily clad woman is hiding inside a wardrobe and a man’s socked foot sticks out from under the bed. At the sound of an unexpected knock at the door the whole audience knows exactly where they are: safe in the land of farce, where life is even more complicated than the real thing and the frantic pace of the action will build until the final curtain.

This summer the time-honoured tradition of broad stage comedy is back in the West End with a vengeance. A series of acclaimed new productions, including a whirlwind re-working of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the Old Vic and a new revival at the Lyric Hammersmith of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off – a 1982 farce about putting on a farce – have both now joined the hugely successful show The Play that Goes Wrong as a new generation of theatregoers discovers the joy of pure farce.

Playwright Jenny Selway, whose own new farce, Flat Out, has just closed after a critically acclaimed run, is delighted to see the genre return in triumph. “It’s the cruellest, most delicious humour,” she said this weekend.

But Selway is unsure if the current boom is a response to the gloomy political mood or simply driven by the fact that writers and producers have worked out how to revive the form without the stereotypes.

“Are we suddenly keen on staging farces because we’re living through such serious times? It sounds neat, but times are usually serious,” Selway said. “It is true, though, that there’s an absurdity about today’s politics, including identity politics, and farce does chime with that.”

During the original London heyday of the genre in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, popular shows such as Brian Rix’s Whitehall farces and Ray Cooney’s Run for your Wife were all littered with misunderstandings and missing trousers. But 1980s farces with jokes at the expense of dumb blondes or gay men would not play well now.

“In Flat Out I wanted to find comedy in today’s obsessions and preoccupations and still have people taking their clothes off and hiding in cupboards,” said Selway, who also believes farce should not be classed as “light comedy”, since the dramatis personae are all usually “having the worst day of their lives”. Even Coward’s witty 1939 comedy Present Laughter, which stars Andrew Scott as the egotistical actor at its centre, has been updated for 2019 with a gender change in one of the love affairs.

Debra Gillett, Jonathan Cullen and Meera Syal in Noises Off by Michael Frayn at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

While the new productions are generally more politically aware, they are doing such roaring box office business that two spin-off stage shows, The Robbery that Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, from the team behind The Play that Goes Wrong, are also drawing in big West End crowds. The film director JJ Abrams, the comedian Peter Kay and the American magicians Penn & Teller are among ardent fans of these shows. And a Goes Wrong television series based on the franchise is currently being filmed in front of audiences in Manchester, ready to come to small screens this autumn.

After two television specials that guest starred Diana Rigg and Derek Jacobi, the BBC has commissioned six half-hour stories that will see the ill-fated Cornley Drama Society undertake another ambitious production, as well as a courtroom drama and a second world war spy thriller.

The term “farce” comes from the Latin “to stuff”, and a typical plot is packed with twists, puns, concealments and increasingly rapid entrances and exits. As a result, farce has often been scorned as a vulgar form, despite being rooted in ancient Greek drama.

Coward’s Present Laughter is full of jokes about such theatrical snobbery, with one of the characters dismissively comparing the action to a French farce. But there are also a few pointed jokes in the script about the unplayability of Henrik Ibsen’s deeply serious Peer Gynt, a play that opens at the National Theatre in a new version by David Hare tomorrow. Ray Cooney’s essential rules of farce, first laid out in the 1980s by the playwright, now 87, stipulated that these comedies should have a strong element of tragedy running through them. He also felt that the drama should take place in “real time” for the audience, with no leaping backward or forward.

Jeremy Herrin’s revival of Noises Off largely obeys these rules, as does Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings, being revived for a run at the playwright’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough this September – the first time since its premiere there in 1980.

The appeal of watching from the stalls as everything “goes wrong” seems to be back in full force and as Ayckbourn, 85, has said: “You may think you’ve had a bad Christmas, but wait until you see this one.”

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