Terry Johnson’s award-winning 1994 comedy DEAD FUNNY is a fantastic comedic addition to the West End and a small yet painfully funny antidote to the huge trials and tribulations of 2016.
Set in 1992, DEAD FUNNY tells the story of Ellie (Katherine Parkinson) and Richard (Rufus Jones), a dysfunctional married couple who haven’t had sex in a year and a half. Richard claims that he doesn’t like being touched, whilst wife Ellie attempts to cope with his emotional unavailability as well.
Richard shows more emotion when he hears of Benny Hill’s death than he ever does around his wife. As the chairman of the Dead Funny society, which celebrates classic comedians of Britain’s ‘golden’ era – namely the 1970s – comedy is to Richard something of a status symbol, a way to distance himself further as he leads his group in recreating his favourite sketches, sketches which, at times, reveal the racism and sexism of an era lauded by those who are lucky enough to be ignorant of it.
The play itself feels somewhat like a coy homage to 20th Century sitcoms, the set design alone reminding me of the likes of As Time Goes By with its abundance of pine and dado rails. In fact, the appearance of a nineties Tesco carrier bag left me marvelling at the level of detail in the production, which uses nostalgia as a mirror to draw in the audience.
Nostalgia is important, but so, too, is the laughter. Steve Pemberton, as well-meaning Brian, proves that his acting talent, like that of his League of Gentleman co-star Reece Shearsmith (currently performing at the Duke of York’s), is not to be underestimated, as he exercises well-honed and attentive impressions of Brian’s favourite comedians, such as Frankie Howerd.
Pemberton’s impressive comic timing and affectionate portrayal of the oddities of middle England make Brian’s presence one of the best parts of the play, particularly in a moment of laughter shared with Parkinson before the final curtain falls. The tone of Jones’ play is clear – this is laughter to keep from weeping.
Indeed, the play reminds us wonderfully that the best comedies have tremendous pathos too. Some of the funniest moments are punctuated by moments of complete emotional murder, in which characters snipe and shout at one another as the society’s evening celebrating the life of Benny Hill unravels. Parkinson in particular is brilliant at treading the line between withering deadpan humour and heartfelt sadness, as she necks martinis and grapples with love for her husband despite hatred for how he is treating her.
From landlines to quiet affairs and society politics, DEAD FUNNY exposes all the little idiosyncrasies of early nineties middle class Britain and revels in them without compromising on the emotional bloodbath.There is truth in each performance by the terrific ensemble cast, but that doesn’t mean a custard pie can’t be thrown every now and then.
Reviewed by Laura Stanley
Photo: Alastair Muir
DEAD FUNNY plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until 4 February 2017. Get tickets
This show was reviewed as part of a Stagedoor bloggers event. Download the Stagedoor app