What's the farce about?

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Martin Barass (Alfie) Martin Barass (Alfie) - © Johan Persson
Posted: Fri May 4 2012

As trousers fall all over the West End, Richard Bean and Omid Djalili explain why farce is back in vogue

Farce, a well-worn pair of Y-fronts in the closet of theatrical traditions, has made a surprise return to fashion. At the Nöel Coward theatre, Lindsay Duncan presides over Coward's mannered 1925 contribution to the genre, 'Hay Fever'. This week, Joe Orton's lewder, ruder 1967 anti-farce, 'What the Butler Saw', brings Winston Churchill's penis to the Vaudeville. And 'Noises Off', Michael Frayn's 1982 farce-within-a-farce, which caused mass incontinence at the Old Vic last Christmas, continues at the Novello.

But why exactly is this vulgar, stagey, humiliating genre - which inflicts agony on servants, adultresses and waiters - back with a vengeance? It's tempting to finger 'One Man, Two Guvnors', which has hit the commercial and critical jackpot that all producers aspire to.

Its new London cast have extended their West End run at the Haymarket to January 2013. And its original cast have tickled Broadway pink: James Corden and co recently earned glorious reviews in New York and seven Tony nominations. But the show's writer Richard Bean is unwilling to shoulder the blame for the farce revival: 'Graham Linehan's adaptation of “The Ladykillers” was produced at the same time as “One Man, Two Guvnors”,' he points out. 'And there's only one scene in “One Man, Two Guvnors” that's a classic door-slamming farce, which is the dinner scene.'

That dinner scene just happens to be the comic pinnacle of the show. I've seen people in the stalls crying with laughter. And James Corden and Tom Edden, as the freelance henchman Francis and the geriatric garçon who serve simultaneous dinner to Francis's two guvnors, have both been nominated for Tonys. So why are contemporary audiences lapping up the slapstick?

Bean, who was a stand-up comedian before he turned playwright, argues that, 'There are actually very few theatre comedies written that are pure comedy.' Given that he's the funniest man in British theatre right now, this might be a tactful way of saying that most theatre comedy is not that funny. 'Usually you write a play that's about something,' explains Bean, 'as I did with “The Heretic”, which was about global warming - and then you put a few jokes in to keep the audience awake. But farce is one of the few forms that is pure comedy.'

Their Carry On-style carry ons look old fashioned but today's hit farces no longer depend on a prurient interest in adultery for laughs. Trousers remain downwardly mobile, but the gags are edgier, talkier and smarter than they were in the sex farces that gave the genre a bad name. Current popular hits take physical risks that you can't take on-screen and make statelier, talkier classics like Coward's 'Hay Fever' look stiff.

Elaborately staged mortalities were the high point of 'The Ladykillers'(which broke all previous box office records at the Gielgud in December 2011). And 'Noises Off'(which smashed the Old Vic's at Christmas) is notoriously risky for actors, especially for the luckless chap who has to hurl himself up and down stairs with his shoelaces tied together.

'The brief from Nick Hytner for “One Man, Two Guvnors”,' says Bean, 'was that we'd got James Corden, who would get a younger audience, so I should write for them.' Bean was inspired by double acts on the stand-up circuit. Corden - directed by physical comedy maestro Cal McCrystal - gamely tried out routines which were too dangerous to make it to the stage.

'I would ring Nick up,' says Bean, 'And say, “Can he run through the room on the cake trolley, hit the wall and fly out the window?” And Nick would say, “We'll see if we can do it”. There was one set-piece that James tried to do 50 times. He would try to get his guvnor's trunk through the door; he'd get behind it and run at the door; it'd hit the sill, straighten up and he'd go flying into the pub. But we just couldn't do it - so we got two blokes up from the audience to help him instead, which became good fun. More improvisation, more breaking the fourth wall.'

Joe Orton's 1967 play, 'What the Butler Saw', which was met by cries of 'Filth!' when it was first performed after his death in 1969, channels the '60s spirit more aggressively than Bean's genial retro smash hit.'It's two fingers up at the establishment' says comic Omid Djalili, who plays a psychiatric clinic inspector. 'At the end of the play the men have guns and the women are in straitjackets and if that isn't a statement about society, I don't know what is.'

But although today's tastes are more ironic, running to Frayn's meta-farce, Orton's anti-farce, or Bean's smörgåsbord of comic techniques rather than plain old slapstick, the basic appeal is the same. 'Farce is the theatre version of action movies', says Djalili. 'You read “What the Butler Saw” and you think: What a clever ironic look at a tit and bum farce. But then you play it and you realise it is actually a tit and bum farce masquerading as an ironic look at a tit and bum farce.'

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