Have the British lost their sense of humour? Are they so overwhelmed by the pressures and complexities of modern life that they cannot enjoy levity in their entertainment anymore? A glance at the West End theatre listings would seem to imply as much.
When I was a young actor/writer in the nineteen sixties and seventies the London theatre scene was quite different to now. Then there were perhaps half a dozen musicals playing in the largest theatres, and the major source of critical discussion was the new wave of ‘kitchen sink’ drama pioneered by John Osborne with ‘Look Back in Anger’ and maintained by playwrights such as Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney, and by productions from the terrific Joan Littlewood theatre factory at Stratford East.
However, the mainstay of the commercial theatre was comedy and farce, genres which are rarely seen in London these days, although still very much alive in other countries. Hardly a week went by in those long past golden days when some new comedy by William Douglas Home, Hugh and Margaret Williams, Robert Morley, Peter Ustinov, Neil Simon, Leslie Storm, Terence Frisby, Keith Waterhouse, Ray Cooney, et al was not opening, and invariably playing to packed houses whatever the critics had to say, simply because of the star power they were able to attract.
Major theatre names were happy to do at least a six-month stint making fools of themselves in some frothy light-hearted piece. Even distinguished classical thespians like Sir Ralph Richardson and Dame Peggy Ashcroft could occasionally be persuaded to dabble in the genre, and ageing film stars such as Stewart Granger, Margaret Lockwood and Glynis Johns were sometimes tempted back to the boards, with varying results. And of course down the road from Trafalgar Square Brian Rix was dropping his trousers nightly at the Whitehall Theatre, to gales of laughter in speed-of-light-so-you-don’t-see-the-joins farces by Ray Cooney and John Chapman.
This is no longer the case. Why is this? As a playwright who still manages to make a living from comedy, 90 per cent of which comes from foreign markets. I have often wondered why Britain, still the cradle of some of the best stand-up comedians and TV sitcoms in the world, seems to have abandoned the tradition of stage comedy. The younger audience of course, who for the most part cannot contemplate the expense of live theatre, patronise instead the comedy clubs and stand-up comedians. And there have been a few successful comic plays produced over recent years. But the strange thing is that they have nearly all been reincarnations or parodies of distantly remembered comedy classics from the British film, radio, or TV archives (‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Yes Minister’ etc) - rarely originally conceived situation comedies in their own right.
The stage musical now reigns supreme in London (and New York) and has done for three decades. At the time of writing, there are no less than 30 musicals playing in the West End, with a dozen more on the way. This is an astounding number given the cost of production and the unsuitability of many smaller theatres for such a show.
How has this come about? I think the answer has something to do with the proliferation of comedy on television (bolstered of course by the longevity of such American sit-coms as ‘Friends’, ‘Frasier’, and ‘Seinfeld’ churned out by the incredibly efficient US studio system), and by the growing ordeal and cost of live theatre-going in London. If one is tempted to brave the challenges of West End travel, crowds, parking, restaurants, etc., and then pay upwards of a hundred pounds for a ticket, one wants to be damned sure one is getting value for one’s money. And at least a musical, with its large cast, special effects, dazzling scenery and superficial glitz guarantees that illusion, even if the provenance of many shows is somewhat questionable. The musical provides something that the straight play or comedy, and indeed the television set, can never provide. In this age of instant and sensational gratification, it’s the stage’s answer to the cinema’s digitally achieved action spectacular. So if you are feeling like a simple evening of giggle and light relief, then much better to stay home and see what Ricky Gervais can come up with.
However, the extraordinary thing is that abroad it is quite different. Right across Europe, the Balkans, and parts of the Middle East (I have had long-running productions in such places as Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic), and in the hundreds of well attended American provincial theatres, comedy is still king. Many cities in Germany, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia, still maintain theatres dedicated to comedy. They are often quite small, seating between three and five hundred people, and carry names such as the Kleine Comedie Theater, or the Teatrul de Comedie, and they play to sophisticated audiences at near capacity, changing shows at regular intervals after a run of a few months, before sending the production out on the road to the smaller towns and venues. They rely partly on homegrown playwrighting talent, but also on the English language output, which is nurtured by those long-established traditions and skills from the past.
In Europe, the plays are usually translated into the local language by a small but extremely busy army of regular translators/adaptors who keep a diligent eye out for any new piece appearing in the British or American listings or written by an established author. The plots still tend to be variations on the traditional husband/mistress, wife/lover domestic crisis theme (sex is still the funniest word in whatever language), and the productions and performances are often of the highest quality. Indeed, I can testify from many experiences that on foreign stages the refined and extremely difficult art of comedy performance often outclasses the rare examples in my own country, where actors and directors are no longer steeped in the tradition.
I think this is all rather sad. I believe that there is still a market out there for the sophisticated comedy of manners, or the farce which can expose the fatuities of contemporary life in the way that Molière, Georges Feydeau or Ben Travers used to do long ago. I believe there is still an audience for a witty and stylish showcase featuring its favourite stars from the TV sitcoms (provided they can recapture their stage skills). I have in the past suggested to London theatre owners struggling with the problem of how to find a good product for their smaller venues, that a theatre mounting a regular repertoire of comedies for limited runs. Therefore, offering short term commitment to the stars or top comedians could establish a regime and a reputation that might serve it for decades.
Somewhere amongst the large numbers of theatregoers and tourists, I believe there yet lingers an appreciation of the ridiculous and a desire to laugh. Perhaps it requires some new playwrights to transform the genre in the way that Ben Travers, Ray Cooney, and Alan Ayckbourn did in the last century. Or is it simply that, in this stressful age, in which the whole planet is under threat from climate and despots, the British as a nation have lost their ability to laugh, unless it is from the safe confines of their TV sofas?