Forget irony, bring on farce

What, you may wonder, is Tom Stoppard‘s favorite line in British theater? An irony-drenched Oscar Wilde aphorism, a lustrous moment of John Webster poetry, the perfectly phrased finale to a Shakespeare soliloquy? No, it’s “Arrest most of these vicars!”

That deliciously British exclamation, which could come only from a great British farce, actually arrives at the height of the third-act mayhem in “See How They Run.” Philip King’s 1945 laugh factory, set in the hall of the vicarage at the hitherto sleepy village of Merton-cum-Middlewick, is feverishly populated not just by the aforementioned vicars, but also by a bishop, a policeman, a handsome soldier, an escaped prisoner, a Cockney maid and a seriously nettled spinster.

Does farce still work in the oh-so-cynical 21st century? It certainly seems so. Matthew Byam Shaw‘s recent touring production — helmed by Douglas Hodge — was successful enough to leap into the West End’s Duchess Theater later this month, where it will complement Jeremy Sams‘ uproarious revival of Michael Frayn‘s “Donkey’s Years.” That production has just extended its booking period at the Comedy Theater through Sept. 2. And next month, Peter Hall will weigh in at the Theater Royal, Bath, with a revival of Alan Bennett‘s “Habeas Corpus.”

“See How They Run” is something of a pet project for Byam Shaw, who sees King in a direct line from prolific farceur Ben Travers (1886-1980) and Frayn. “His writing is like P.G. Wodehouse and screenwriter Richard Curtis. The characters are eccentric and batty, but the humor is essentially English: inclusive, decent and friendly.”

He also admires the sheer Swiss-watch-like precision of the writing, something that appeals to Frayn, another King fan. Indeed, Frayn’s greatest farce, “Noises Off,” is to a degree a wildly sophisticated development of King’s “On Monday Next,” a 1950 farce about a tatty regional theater company in increasingly shambolic rehearsals.

Sams, helmer of London and Broadway’s recent “Noises Off,” also revels in finely engineered farce mechanics. “What’s not to love? Really, they’re about a lot of people who are in places they absolutely cannot and must not be. The pleasure comes from seeing the mighty fall and run around. It’s modern tragedy: We watch the fall not of the hero but the trousers. And it does us good because the people we’re watching are not us!”

Meanwhile, the almost indecently crowded London musicals market has two further entries. Bloodied but unbowed from his Broadway experience with “Festen,” director Rufus Norris will direct a new production of “Cabaret” opening in November. Casting is still firmly under wraps, but insiders suggest rumors circulating about Martine McCutcheon — as famous for her no-shows as her performances in the National Theater’s “My Fair Lady” — are likely to be exaggerated.

Before that, however, the current touring production of “The Rocky Horror Show” pitches camp, as it were, for three weeks in July at the Playhouse. Appetites for the show will have been whetted by last month’s one-night stand at the Royal Court (its original home) as part of the theater’s 50th anniversary. Although original cast members Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn and Little Nell all made appearances that night, it was Anthony Head‘s gloriously teasing Frank ‘N’ Furter who didn’t so much steal the show as commit grand larceny.

Michael Gambon faces almost no competition in the scene-stealing stakes in his next theater outing. He’s the sole stage presence in “Eh Joe,” the hit of the recent Beckett centenary festival. He won’t, however, speak one word. His silent performance is accompanied by the insistent and insinuating voice of the seductive Penelope Wilton. Written for TV and broadcast by the BBC on July 4, 1966, the 30-minute play will be performed twice nightly from June 27-July 15 at the Duke of York’s, directed by Atom Egoyan.

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