Last Sunday was the second anniversary of this critic’s last visit to a theatre. It has been a long, dark period but the transfer of some shows online has helped to soften the blow.
There are many aspects of live theatre that any regular theatregoer would miss during such an absence and one of the biggest losses for a critic was a chance to mix with members of the theatre community on what was often an almost constant basis.
Social media is all very well, but the best way to keep one’s finger on the pulse is to meet others with similar interests, whether they be fellow critics, writers, directors, producers, actors or behind-the-scenes folk which for us frequently means press officers. It was therefore a particular pleasure to bump into one of the producers behind The Play That Goes Wrong earlier this week.
A 10-minute chat provided a fascinating insight into the current state of London and West End theatre. In particular, the producer made an observation that may well have completely passed everyone by. This was the strange fact that his show is the only comedy currently playing in the West End. He qualified that statement by noting that there are still some musical comedies going strong such as Book of Mormon.
While it is easy to understand why producers might be reluctant to bring something untried into the West End, you might imagine that William Shakespeare, Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde or perhaps Goldsmith and Congreve could be the perfect recipe for some harmless escapism at the moment.
The general assumption is surely that when times are tough, we all need a little light relief. In fact, most of us need an awful lot of light relief, now that our media bombards recipients with unremitting horror stories and images from Ukraine.
These have at least relegated the cost-of-living crisis and potentially illegal behaviour by the Prime Minister out of the spotlight. They have also pushed the terrors of coronavirus off the front pages, though the virus is going strong and looks like making a powerful comeback over the next few weeks.
The title of this article has been borrowed from the Stephen Sondheim’s farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that came back to cheer us all up and pay tribute to a true theatre great who is much missed?
In case anybody thinks that this trend away from comedy has something to do with the perversity of the English, they might just be right. A quick skim through shows on Broadway this season suggests that around half of straight plays on major New York stages are comedies.
To be fair, it is quite hard to find many straight plays on either side of the Atlantic. In these hard times, producers seem to have decided that musicals are a safer bet.
However, those that survive in the West End generally seem to either rely on murder, horror or some other depressing representation of society. Presumably, this is pandering to the desires and needs of perceived audiences. What does that say about people who have witnessed 175,000 of their fellows die from a latter-day plague in the last two years?
The impression that we want to pile imitation horror on to real horror is probably confirmed by TV and film programming in recent times. While reality has become a real thing on TV and comedy certainly still exists, blood, gore and other shockers are perennially popular, though often murder remains genteel on the small screen. The same manifestations are obvious in cinemas, where it is almost an obligation that big blockbusters are built around violence.
Having discovered this development, it will be fascinating to follow events through the rest of the year to see whether comedy makes a welcome comeback.