Dead Funny | Review by Steve Bennett

Dead Funny

Review by Steve Bennett

Nostalgia’s big in comedy at the moment, what with the BBC’s revivals and the passing of greats like Jimmy Perry, reminding us how their work became part of the national texture.

But then it was always thus, as this old play about even older comedians reminds us. ‘It’s 1992,’ the usher informs the audience on the way in. More precisely, it’s April of that year, and news breaks of Benny Hill’s death, causing shock and grief among members of the Dead Funny Society, a group who celebrate vintage comedy in the well-appointed suburban home of their president, Richard.

A more metaphoric death stalks Richard’s marriage. He can no longer bear any physical contact with his wife Eleanor, while her frustrations at feeling unwanted and washed-up have driven her to breaking point. She desperately wants to revive the relationship and have a baby before it’s too late, but Richard seems more interested in sex as a seaside postcard punchline than something he might actually put his body and heart into.

Terry Johnson’s play – which debuted in 1994 with Zoe Wanamaker taking a career-defining role – has an astute analysis of humour and gender at its heart. Richard and his chums Brian and Nick can replicate every beat of a Morecambe and Wise sketch, and use that shared knowledge to communicate and bond. Eleanor can’t buy into it – arguing that their analytical hero-worship means they don’t actually enjoy the jokes on a more instinctive level. ‘Appreciation isn’t laughter,’ she tells them, pointedly.

In turn, the men condemn her as a sourpuss with no sense of humour, the greatest failing in their eyes. They’re unaware that she is actually the funniest among them. She has a tart, waspish wit, embittered by her desperate situation, sharply astute and released through a drunken bitterness.

Katherine Parkinson compellingly captures the angry devastation of a woman running out of options, having invested the best years of her life in a relationship now on the rocks and torn between trying to save it or abandoning ship. Her sharp tongue imbues each barbed comment with acidic humour.

But the whole ensemble is strong. As Richard, Rufus Jones is essentially the straightman in their marriage, a strait-laced surgeon concerned with appearing ‘appropriate’ – adding extra potency to an hilarious physical comedy routine involving a daring nude massage. Playing Nick, Ralf Little demonstrates a flair for impersonations, especially an on fleek Ernie Wise; Steve Pemberton is engagingly camp as eager-to-please softie Brian; and Emily Berrington from Humans adds extra comic relief as the ditzy new mum (and only female member of the Dead Funny Society) who believes she’s psychic.

Though the story underpinning Dead Funny is one of heartbreak, the piece is largely played for laughs – and gets them dependably. The tone can sometime shift suddenly – from poignancy to hilarity in a beat, even to the broadest, most slapstick farce – yet the skilled cast keep it credible, (almost) always steering the audience between rapt attention to hearty laughs without crunching the gears.

The plentiful ancient comedy references, from Dan Leno to Hancock’s Half Hour make it a must-see for anyone who shares that interest… even if the object of the group could almost have focussed their obsession on anything. But there are some sly, knowing gags about the subject, such as one absent, renegade member being sneered at with the dismissive: ‘He likes Ben Elton, you know’. Plus the sight of vicious rows being played out in Benny Hill fancy dress (including his politically incorrect Chinaman character) is always going to make them more amusing.

It’s not clear why Dead Funny has remained dormant for so long, for this revival, directed by Johnson, hits all the marks with strong actors, great characters, and a bitingly funny script than conspire to make a show as funny as any of the comedy greats it celebrates. 

Review date: 4 Nov 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Vaudeville Theatre

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