Theatre: Oh My! That's a Big Comeback You've Got There ; It's Just a Puerile, Sexist Form of Popular Entertainment, Isn't It? Veronica Lee Makes the Case for Farce
Lee, Veronica, The Independent (London, England)
Invite someone to an evening at the theatre and they will be touched by your implied nod to their intellect and discernment. Invite them to accompany you to a farce and they will think you are implying they have no taste. That's the trouble with farce; along with pantomime, it's considered the poor relation of theatre; too funny to be serious, too broad to be witty.
Blame Ray Cooney and Brian Rix if you like. Between them they either starred in, wrote, directed or produced almost all those "Oops, Vicar, I've Dropped My Trousers!" shows whose interchangeable plots, sets and actors made provincial theatre in the Sixties and Seventies one long round of "Oh, no! My wife has come home unexpectedly!", or "Oh, no! That must be the tax inspector!"
Farce's history, though, is as long and as noble as any theatre genre. As old as Greek tragedy (and as plausible as some of those plots), ranked as important as medieval morality plays, and as technically demanding as opera or ballet. But something went rather wrong after the great age of Ben Travers' Aldwych comedies of manners (during the 1920s to 1940s), when farce sank into a cliche of the blue-rinse brigade's favourite entertainment. Come agitprop and in-yer-face theatre of the past few decades, farce had had its day.
But lately, the genre has seen a renaissance. The Royal National Theatre, no less, has presented two farces - Alan Ayckbourn's House/ Garden and a revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off - to sell-out audiences in the past year. Now a new farce, Under the Doctor, is about to open in the West End, the first in several years.
Many authors - such as Joe Orton, Samuel Beckett, even Shakespeare - flirt with farce's conventions, but its fast pace and complicated mechanics deter most from just the briefest fling. For Under the Doctor's writer, Peter Tilbury, though, it was a chance to test comedy skills honed over many years of writing and acting in TV sitcoms such as Chef!, Sprout, Birds of a Feather and This is David Lander. "Farce is a huge comic challenge", he says. "Comic construction is fascinating and farce is the most cleverly constructed of all comedies. It's more difficult than anything I've had to write and took far longer. It makes me wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night with `Oh my God, that bit doesn't make sense'."
Despite its use of farce conventions - adulterous husband, gorgeous totty, conniving factotum, treacherous friends - Under the Doctor's producers have been wary of presenting it as farce, perhaps worried that potential audiences will be put off by images of Brian Rix dropping his trousers for the umpteenth time or Derek Nimmo playing one too many virginal vicars. Is Tilbury concerned? "Farce is a pure, distilled form of comedy, but as soon as you mention the f-word, then people think it's old-fashioned."
"It stuck in a rut during the Sixties and Seventies", says Under the Doctor's director, Fiona Laird. "And I think it's also something to do with the `quality' theatre not doing it for a while. It was very much sidelined into rep in a pejorative way and so people stopped thinking of it as a quality format."
Is the criticism at least partly justified? "Oh yes", says …
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Publication information: Article title: Theatre: Oh My! That's a Big Comeback You've Got There ; It's Just a Puerile, Sexist Form of Popular Entertainment, Isn't It? Veronica Lee Makes the Case for Farce. Contributors: Lee, Veronica - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 11, 2001. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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