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Bring back the fun!

Alexander Larman writes an open letter to the artistic directors of theatres

Artillery Row

Dear Rufus, Kwame, Nicholas, Greg, Matthew, Vicky, Michelle et al, 

First of all, congratulations on surviving the pandemic, both personally (a close call, Rufus, by your own account!) and professionally. After Britain’s theatres have been closed for the longest period since the Commonwealth, your playhouses are now starting to open again, to expectant audiences who are dying (not literally, I hope!) to spend time with other people, in darkened rooms where actors put make-up on their faces and stand on a stage to tell stories. Theatre is one of the great civilising influences in our society. We love the idea that by attending these public gatherings, we are participating in a storytelling ritual that has lasted for thousands of years. I hope that, beastly airborne viruses notwithstanding, it might go on for thousands of years longer. 

Which is why, gentlemen – for you remain mainly gentlemen, I fear – and ladies, I am writing to you with a very modest proposal. When the ancient Greeks began writing plays back in the 6th century BC or thereabouts, they wrote in two main genres: tragedy, and comedy. (Yes, for the pedants at the back, there were the satyr plays too, but those satyrs do have a habit of complicating matters, so we’ll leave them to one side for the moment.) It seems as if tragedy in some form or another is well represented on our stages, whether in the ‘traditional’ form of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller or the more contemporary interpretations of a Roy Williams or a Jasmine Lee-Jones. But comedy? Ah, there’s the rub.

There seems to be a reluctance to commission new writers to produce comedies, and a far greater disquiet at the idea of going back into the canon

Now, I know what you’re going to say. Yes, social distancing and timid audiences are not especially conducive to relaxing and uproarious evenings in the theatre. And, Rufus, I share your hopes that Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’ WWII-set adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, will one day make it to the Lyttelton theatre, and don’t disagree with you that the National’s new production of Under Milk Wood with Martin Sheen and Sian Phillips contains its share of amusing moments. Sir Nick, likewise. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the excellent Simon Russell Beale in your production of Nina Raine’s Bach and Sons at the Bridge, and hope it lives up to its billing as ‘beautiful, profound and funny’, even if I sighed at the description of it as ‘an anthem to art that draws us together and sings of our common humanity.’ But it’s not quite One Man, Two Guvnors, is it? 

In fact, Sir Nick – sorry to single you out, but as the only artistic director of your peers in possession of a knighthood, you must bear some responsibility as an elder statesmen – you put this extremely well in your excellent memoir of your career at the National, and elsewhere, Balancing Acts. You wrote ‘it seemed to me that the occasional provision of what the public best like was part of the deal, a fair exchange for the annual boon of several millions of pounds from the public purse. And besides, I liked giving it to them.’ And you also, blessedly, were aware that ‘what the sillier sort of people really like is comedy, and I’m with them on that, though many of my associates were wary of it.’ 

Alas, these aforementioned associates are now the ones in charge of many of the nation’s theatres – including, it must be said, the National Theatre. Even pre-pandemic, there has been a dispiriting absence of funny plays to go and see. It is not a coincidence that two of the three most successful plays in the history of the National – the aforementioned One Man, Two Guvnors and The History Boys – are both laugh-out-loud comedies. (The other, War Horse, doesn’t have many jokes, but we’ll forgive it that because it’s got splendid horse puppets, which are worth any number of gags.) But there seems to be a reluctance to commission new writers to produce comedies, and a far greater disquiet at the idea of going back into the canon. While the Sir Nick reign produced several wonderfully funny nights at the theatre (I can’t think of Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw and Richard Briers in the brilliant London Assurance without grinning spontaneously), nobody else seems especially interested in producing such plays any more. You will go out to be educated, and to learn more about your society. Or you can stay at home with your Netflix and your Amazon Prime, if you want laughs. 

I think that this is a wasted opportunity, both for commercial reasons and for artistic ones. I count myself as one of the “sillier people” who Sir Nick is indulgent towards, for the simple reason that I like sitting in the dark, laughing at farcical situations. I happen to enjoy seeing some of the best actors in the country today – some even the proud possessors of knighthoods and damehoods, as well as more than a smattering of OBEs – getting themselves into absurd and compromising positions, and, yes, sometimes losing their trousers in the process. And I would like to be able to do this a great deal more often than I do. But none of you are giving me a chance to. So, in consequence, I can’t see anything coming to the theatre that I’m particularly bothered about, save the peerless Ralph Fiennes in his one-man version of Four Quartets. And I’m hardly expecting that to be a laugh-a-minute, either. 

So, here’s my own modest proposal, delivered with only the hint of a custard pie in the face. Bring back the Aldwych farces of Ben Travers and George Arthurs, for starters. They’re brilliantly funny, even now, and, with just the faintest hint of a dramaturgical edit to remove some of the more questionable touches, would lead to sell-out audiences. Virtually every really successful farce that has been staged in the West End over the past couple of decades, from Michael Frayn’s Noises Off to, yes, One Man, Two Guvnors, owes them an enormous debt. And if you’re in doubt as to whether a contemporary audience would find them funny, look at the delirious acclaim that Douglas Hodge’s 2006 resurrection of Philip King’s See How They Run was greeted with. There will never not be a time when the line ‘Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars’ will not bring the house down. 

And, if you insist on ‘relevance’ and ‘contemporary outreach’, then by all means commission modern-day playwrights to come up with their own version of Aldywch farces, and call them ‘Clapton knockabouts’ or something suitably 2021. But make them properly provocative if so. Let’s not have jokes about mothers-in-law and how venal politicians are, but instead let’s find something near-the-knuckle. The writers could take on, for instance, many of the contemporary sacred cows that infuriate and rile up columnists and social media commentators alike. Great playwrights should be able to make any subject funny. It is an enormous pity that they are not being given the chance to do so.

It is because you, the artistic directors, are not taking risks, although you believe that you are

There is a line of British comic writing that existed from Shakespeare to Goldsmith, Wilde to Orton, but these days seems to have petered out, though I have hopes of the likes of James Graham and Laura Wade. This is not because there is a lack of appetite or appreciation. It is because you, the artistic directors, are not taking risks, although you believe that you are. You are instead shying away from giving audiences what they want, in much the same way that publishers seem terrified of comic novels for fear of causing offence. 

Great theatre should entertain, it should provoke, and, yes, sometimes it should offend. If that is too challenging an idea, then perhaps we should all have stayed at home with our box sets, and the theatres should never have bothered reopening. To me, that’s tragedy, not comedy. So let’s have some programming for the next, post-covid season that’s properly fun, that will lead to much-needed sell-out houses and rave reviews, and will hopefully ruffle a few feathers in the process. I’ll be first in line when you do. 

With much love, and socially distanced air kisses,

Alexander Larman

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