The theatre is festooned with Union Jacks, the audience is mature in years and the warmup music is mostly Bud Flanagan and Vera Lynn. It's all deeply nostalgic, just like Dad's Army. Where are we? The Duchess Theatre, where Douglas Hodge's revival of that wonderful wartime farce See How They Run is playing until October 28th. The lovely Nancy Carroll steals the show as the vicar's wife with a theatrical past and makes me think that being trapped in the blackout must sometimes have been fun. (Nancy's recent theatrical past has included The Voysey Inheritance at the National Theatre, and You Never Can Tell at the Garrick).
But I left the theatre wondering whether farce has much of a future. Is it more than an exercise in nostalgia, like The Mousetrap? Will it stagger on in the half-life of amateur theatre, like the stage thriller and the murder mystery? Can it appeal to younger audiences reared on standup comedy and The Office? The evidence from the night I saw See How They Run wasn't too encouraging; the average age was high, the theatre was far from full, and it felt more like a matinee audience (that's not a put-down -- I also go to matinees and my average age is 57). Michael Frayn's early farce Donkeys' Years seems to be doing good business, and a few years ago his masterpiece Noises Off was revived at the National Theatre, transferred successfully to the West End and toured ad infinitum. Noises Off, set onstage and backstage in a touring company performing a traditional farce, is such an original work of genius (much better than Copenhagen in my view) that it queered the pitch for everyone else. By parodying the traditional drop-your-trousers farce and giving it a new postmodern twist, it made the original genre look a bit tired and dated.
The Guardian's Michael Billington is a farce fanatic. He believes the genre's future lies with writers who will reinvent it, like Frayn and Terry Johnson. I think there's a good analogy here with the way The Office reinvented the television sitcom, just as it was starting to look tired. The theatre works in a longer time cycle than television, but even if we assume that a good farce will still put bums on seats, I still feel the genre faces an uncertain future. Traditional farce was the product of a repertory tradition, where writers, actors and directors stayed together for years. I'm thinking of the Ben Travers farces at the Aldwych farces between the wars and Brian Rix's seasons at the Whitehall after World War Two. A scratch company of actors, however gifted, finds it hard to duplicate the kind of comic timing that these ensembles created. Audiences knew exactly what they were going to get when Ralph Lynn, Tom Wall and J. Robertson Hare walked on stage in a Travers farce, but that degree of familiarity doesn't exist any more.
The last survivor of the generation who created the Whitehall farces still working is Ray Cooney, interviewed in UK Writer magazine recently. His last traditional farce Tom, Dick and Harry had only a short West End run, and I remember it as dated and disappointing. His previous play Caught In the Net was much more successful, using the Ayckbourn-style device of putting the two homes of the hero, a bigamous taxi driver, on stage simultaneously. That production included an unforgettable cameo appearance by Eric Sykes wielding a zimmer frame. Cooney at his best shows there's no substitute for experience in creating the Byzantine plots and reversals that farce requires. But there's something lacking in his plays for anyone who's used to the increasing sophistication of the best television comedy writing. Like Ayckbourn in recent years, his characters and plots seem remote from 21st century life.
The real problem facing farce lies not so much in changing audience taste or in the demise of the repertory system as in the reluctance of a new generation of writers to try it. Writing farce is just incredibly difficult (I know, I've tried it). It demands not just a mastery of dialogue but an ability to visualise every phase of the action in three dimensions and anticipate the audience's reactions. Read the plays of Georges Feydeau and his incredibly detailed stage directions. It's like the skill of the watchmaker or any other craft skill that takes time and practice to acquire, and we're in danger of losing it.