Michael Frayn's Democracy might well be this year's best play, but his lasting reputation as a dramatist rests on a far more serious work. No, I don't mean Copenhagen, but the 1982 farce Noises Off, which he rewrote for a National Theatre revival in October 2000. From the moment Patricia Hodge first teetered across the Lyttelton stage, balancing a plate of sardines, this production by Jeremy Sams set a new standard for farce. It has recently closed after a three-year run, which involved successive spells in the West End, and touring just about everywhere, including New York. Good farce is a desperately serious business, which is why there is so little of it about. "Michael spent ten years on Noises Off," Sams told me. "In rehearsal, there were times when we took a whole day to do two minutes of text - it was like filming."
It is often argued that farce is an out-moded genre, killed off by our permissive society. When bourgeois conventions no longer apply, audiences no longer care about characters losing their trousers. By setting his play in a provincial theatre during a production of a trousers-down farce entitled Nothing On, Frayn simultaneously parodies the tradition and invents a new farce based on the theatre convention that, whatever disasters happen offstage, the show must go on. "It's an existential farce," says Sams. "An actor only exists on stage."
Another common belief about farce is that - like haute cuisine - it's something the French do better. It is true that Georges Feydeau was probably the all-time master of the genre, but this is no guarantee that French theatre always gets it right. Recently, I saw a painfully inadequate modern-dress version of Feydeau's Le Dindon (An Absolute Turkey) at the Comedie Francaise in Paris, directed by Lukas Hemleb, a German whose CV suggested he was unfamiliar with the art of farce. Instead of trusting Feydeau's 1896 text and meticulous stage directions, Hemleb had his actors slamming doors and tripping over the furniture at random, or sliding around on sloping floors. This turkey lived up to its name.
Because of censorship, Feydeau was slow to join other classic European dramatists in our theatrical mainstream. The Lord Chamberlain was responsible for the difference between French and English farce; Feydeau's characters are all having illicit sex, or hoping to, while Arthur Wing Pinero's are terrified that someone might wrongly suspect them of minor impropriety. Today, the differences are of little importance.
Peter Hall proved this a decade ago with a successful revival of An Absolute Turkey. More recently, Rada performed an excellent version of another Feydeau farce, Hotel Paradiso (L'Hotel du Libre Echange) set in the round and minus the usual slamming doors. But not every French import works. London audiences looking for a classic Parisian farce who buy tickets for Francis Weber's See You Next Tuesday (adapted by Ronald Harwood from Le DIner de Cons) are in for a disappointment. It lacks both the intricate plotting of a good farce and the subtle characterisation needed for comedy, and wobbles uncertainly between the two.
While many modern English dramatists have dabbled with farce, few have managed to pull it off. Alan Ayckbourn's plays are really character-driven comedies, while Joe Orton's rely less on plot than on his distinctively amoral vision and tone. As a farce, What the Butler Saw has technical flaws, according to Sams, who has directed it. The reason that farce is so hard to write is because in physical comedy every scene has to be thought through in three dimensions; the stage directions are often more important than the words. Ideally, farce flourishes in repertory, where the writer's ideas can be knocked into shape, as they were at the Aldwych in the 1920s or the Whitehall in the 1950s and 1960s under Brian Rix.
One man who learnt his craft at the Whitehall is Ray Cooney, whose Caught in the Net rivalled Noises Off as a box-office success. Cooney's story of a bigamous taxi driver is more traditional than Frayn's, relying just as much on intricate plotting but lacking the extra dimension of a play-within-a-play. Audiences will still flock to a good farce, but there are few successors to Frayn and Cooney in sight.
See You Next Tuesday is at the Albery Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0870 060 6621) until 25 January