We’re having a laugh: a recession means a boom time for comedy
13th December 2011
Last month it was One Man, Two Guvnors. Last week it was The Ladykillers. This week – only last night, in fact – it was Noises Off. Another opening in theatreland – another packed house invited to laugh its heads off. Farces and popular comedies are suddenly filling the West End, sending critics like me into a state of crimson excitement and agitation.
Well, then, what’s occurring? Is this simply the accidental product of coinciding schedules, availabilities and inclinations? Or is the public hungering for something more escapist-silly, old-fashioned, insubstantial, but brilliantly constructed?
Sir Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, has an idea of what it’s all about. It was Hytner who commissioned Richard Bean to rewrite Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters (1753) and who brought in Corden, the most talented joker in The History Boys pack, to give it the right full-fat comedy flavour.
For Hytner, the immediate aim behind One Man, Two Guvnors was to create a big, crowd-pleasing comedy fit to fill the Olivier auditorium. Its huge, smash-hit success and transfer potential revealed how great a gap in the market had emerged: “One of the things I realised was how little of this kind of thing the West End now produces,” he says. “What has been missing is commercial comedy and I don’t quite know why. I suppose because it’s hard to do, but it’s a real missed opportunity.”
Sonia Friedman and Nica Burns, two of the West End’s leading producers, agree that comedy is difficult to get right. Friedman’s laugh-out-loud successes include Boeing-Boeing in London and New York and Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, which also triumphed on both sides of the Atlantic; she’s also responsible for transferring Jerusalem, which while being one of the most important plays the Royal Court has presented for ages is also one of the funniest. Burns, for her part, as the woman who gave us the last new contemporary political comedy in the West End – Alistair Beaton’s New Labour satire Feelgood – and the owner of five theatres, always has her eye on the ball.
The intrinsic difficulty of scoring a comedy hit means that when three big shows come along, the effect is eye-catching. “Everyone has got pieces like this in development,” Burns explains. “Very few land at this standard.” Friedman argues that the massive impact One Man, Two Guvnors has enjoyed has distorted what would be a fairly typical season. However, both acknowledge that there has been a marked shift in public appetite, thanks in the first instance to the anxieties and stresses of the ongoing economic gloom.
“It’s well known that when times are hard the British like a laugh more than anything else,” says Burns. “And in the recession, people want to go out and have a laugh far more than they want to go out and have a cry. I do believe there’s been a bigger appetite for comedy this year than there has been for a very long time.”
“A producer will always be thinking about putting a comedy on in times of depression and difficulty,” Friedman affirms. “When you get every element working – the right writer, director and star – it’s a recipe for success. It gives people the escapism they’re looking for. Comedy is the greatest drug of all.”
As a critic, I’d go further and say that farce-driven plays such as the three I’ve cited above don’t just allow us the opportunity to escape (though they do that), they also enable a crucial cathartic release in bearing witness to human folly. In each case, you witness individuals coming badly unstuck, because the systems they’ve established – whether it’s serving two masters, attempting a bank heist, or mounting a play – start to break down under consistent pressure. None of these plays is about the economic state we’re living in but they offer the spectacle of humanity humbled – its vanity, gluttony, and opportunism opened up for surgical examination, then happily, and in the nick of time, stitched back together again.
The spectacle of helplessness leaving us helpless with laughter is a crucial factor, too, in explaining why stand-up comedy is enjoying a boom, alongside this theatrical resurgence. It’s not simply that the public loves flocking to huge arenas, and having an easy, beer-swilling night out; there’s a sense of identification, too, I think, with the little bloke fighting against almost overwhelming odds.
While financially Michael McIntyre and John Bishop may no longer qualify as part of the “squeezed middle”, as ordinary family men, regaling their fans with tales of sleep-deprivation and recalcitrant offspring, they’re symptomatic of how, even on a good day, life is full of knockabout travails. Sometimes, it’s good to share.
The runaway success-story of our stand-up and comedy scene is helping to reap rich dividends for theatre – as demonstrated by the role the Australian comedian-composer Tim Minchin has had in shaping the musical hit of the season, Matilda for the RSC. Richard Bean started out as a stand-up and it’s the skills Graham Linehan acquired writing the broad-hearted sitcoms Father Ted and The IT Crowd that have ensured his daring spin on that much-loved 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers creaks not a jot. And clever, populist comedy in the theatre will continue to benefit from injections of wit sharpened in the toughest environment – comedy clubs.
Burns, who also runs the Edinburgh Comedy Award, is open in her desire to harness the comedy world’s abilities to improve what the West End might offer in future. “We have such an enormous pool of talent, I want to see more people move from the sphere of stand-up to starring in and, above all, writing new plays.”
The Holy Grail, post the success of One Man Two Guvnors, isn’t simply to replicate that achievement – although both producers see it as having established a new benchmark for the industry. “It has raised the bar – we now need to be smarter about the comedies we produce,” Friedman says. Though, as her counterpart points out: “There are very few great comedies waiting to be rediscovered.” Molière, Ben Travers and Feydeau are the most obvious contenders – but they now need to be revisited with exceptional verve: “One Man has show us the way forward brilliantly,” Burns says, “because of the up-to-speed games it played with the way the characters spoke. In these comedies, vernacular can quickly go out of date. That’s why you need to freshen it up when you go back to it.”
Friedman dreams instead of a new contemporary farce – “an original work that can tell us what’s happening now and take this to the next stage. I think it would be fantastic for those who are writing for the big subsidised theatres to attempt a comedy in the vein of Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn – or even Ray Cooney.”
Ray Cooney? Don’t laugh, she says. “There was a period where farce was a dirty word. That’s changing, although there’s still a way to go. That old snobbery is fading – people accept now that just because you’re laughing that doesn’t make it any less powerful than if you’re crying.”
I think there must be thousands of people flocking out of certain West End theatres at the moment, unfamiliar tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, who’d heartily agree with that.
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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