Theatre: Comedy's a funny old business

David Benedict was charmed by the return of 'Black Comedy' and 'The Real Inspector Hound' in a West End double-bill after a 30-year absence

LAUGHTER, as its practitioners will tell you, is a very serious business, yet few theatre commentators take it very seriously. Comedy wins audiences, tragedy wins prizes and admissions that you prefer, say, Much Ado About Nothing to Hamlet should be done in private between consenting adults.

If you herded up the critical fraternity (I use the word advisedly) and asked them to name the truly great plays of the Sixties, the main names in the ring from the heavyweights would undoubtedly be Harold Pinter for The Caretaker and The Homecoming, Edward Bond for Saved and The Pope's Wedding and Samuel Beckett for Happy Days and Play. None of which is noted for reducing audiences to hysterics.

The sustained West End success of contemporary stand-ups such as Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee has led to a preposterous amount of hype surrounding comedy, the first of many art forms to be tiresomely described as "the new rock'n'roll". Anyone would think that no one had ever laughed in a theatre before.

Actually, British theatrical comedy was in very good hands, thanks to the one-off, iconoclastic genius of Joe Orton (notably Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw). Alan Bennett put down his marker with his hit play Forty Years On, an accomplished satire of the century's life and literature performed by a minor public school. But the two playwrights who left audiences crying with laughter were Peter Shaffer and Tom Stoppard.

Shaffer, a former music critic, had made his mark in 1958 with Five Finger Exercise, a Freudian melodrama in which repressed homosexuality is seen as emanating from what would now be described as "a dysfunctional family unit". His twinned The Private Ear and The Public Eye proved less successful, but he bounced back with another study in male rivalry with John Dexter's famous production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun at Chichester.

It was there, a year later in 1965, that the audiences saw one of the more eye-widening double-bills in theatre history. The first part of the evening consisted of Maggie Smith in Strindberg's Miss Julie. In the second, she came on wearing nothing but a pyjama top as Clea, the spurned mistress, at one of many comic climaxes in Dexter's sensationally cast production of Shaffer's superbly structured, hysterically funny farce Black Comedy.

Meanwhile, Stoppard sprang fully formed from absolutely nowhere on to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a year later with his celebrated Hamlet re-think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Hey presto, a star was born. Well, that's what they'd have you believe. Three years earlier, as a 26-year-old reporter on the Western Daily Press, Stoppard had written a play, Enter a Free Man, which found its way on to television in November. With almost Stoppardian irony, his efforts went almost entirely disregarded as it was screened within days of Kennedy's assassination.

By the time the first draft of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a splash on the fringe, he had written more TV shorts, radio plays and published a novel. Nonetheless, the National Theatre's 1967 production of the completed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern catapulted him into the stratosphere and one year later, when producer Michael Codron was looking for the second part of a double-bill to pair up with the lightweight (and largely forgotten) comedy The Audition, he turned to Stoppard.

These days, double-bills have all but died out. It is regarded as too much like hard work for audiences to suspend disbelief all over again with an entirely new play after the interval, which puts an additional onus on this new pairing. Yet, the combination of two such highly theatrical pieces is nothing short of inspired. Looking at it, you wonder why no one has thought of it before.

Despite the fact that Black Comedy was little more than a staggeringly good comic idea and a handful of scenes when it went into its original rehearsals, the final result is extraordinarily effective. Shaffer hit upon the notion after a visit to the Peking Opera where he saw a battle scene set in darkness played in full light.

Shaffer's farce opens in complete darkness while struggling sculptor Brindsley and his daffy debutante girlfriend are putting the finishing touches to Brindsley's flat, which he has illicitly redecorated with priceless fixtures and furnishings "borrowed" from his upstairs neighbour, the camp antique dealer Harold Gorringe who a) knows nothing about it, and b) is conveniently away. The reason for all this subterfuge is that Brindsley needs to impress a wealthy collector. And then the fuses blow. The stage is flooded with light but the characters stagger about as if in complete darkness. Shaffer turns the comic screw with masterly precision as Harold and a succession of guests show up who all want the lights back on, to the mounting desperation of Brindsley et al.

It's just as hard to describe exactly why Stoppard's comedy The Real Inspector Hound is quite so funny. Two gloriously pompous and pretentious theatre critics, Birdboot and Moon, are pontificating on stage about a country house murder mystery they (and we) are about to see. Everything looks set for a splendidly spirited pastiche of Agatha Christie complete with an escaped madman and char lady, Mrs Drudge, who has a nice line in expository telephone conversations along the lines of "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early Spring?"

The play's original director Robert Chetwyn strongly believes that the play is by no means simply comic. Chetwyn started the proceedings with the critics at the back of the set but at the point at which they enter the action the set moved them to the front. He said: "It was as if the earth shifted beneath your feet. By the end you didn't think you'd only seen a farce. Something very interesting and peculiar was going on underneath."

The other link between the two is their use of stereotypes. Black Comedy includes collisions between an elderly spinster, a blonde sex-bomb and a predatory Northern queen (and that's just for starters). The Real Inspector Hound features dim policemen, "young gels" and a wheelchair-bound, crippled half-brother.

Yet, however helpless the hysteria they induce, they remain types. It took Joe Orton or, more recently, Terry Johnson in Hysteria and Dead Funny to write this level of humour without resorting to stereotype.

To Saturday, at Richmond Theatre, Richmond, Surrey, (0181-940 0088). From 16 April, at Comedy Theatre, London WC2 (0171-369 1731).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power