Things may get “curiouser and curiouser” in the Quarry Theatre’s Alice in Wonderland, but arguably the curiousest thing of all at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny in the Courtyard Theatre. Provoking cries of “Wonderful!” and invocations of the Trades Descriptions Act in equal numbers, it certainly confounds the expectations of the audience.
Posters, programmes and pre-play music are dominated by Eric Morecambe, Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill and other British comedians of a certain vintage; hence some of the audience’s puzzlement to discover a savagely explicit comedy about the collapse of two marriages. Admittedly the events coincide with Benny Hill’s death and three of the four partners are members of the Dead Funny Society run by one of the couple’s neighbour, Brian.
Eleanor’s husband Richard (Nicolas Tennant) is apparently practising involuntary celibacy, with an aversion to naked flesh and physical contact. The resulting therapy leads to a decidedly unerotic nude scene, an amusing interlude with a sex guidance video viewed through the couple’s reactions, and other characters’ arrivals at predictably embarrassing moments.
Thereafter bursts of patter and comic song and Brian’s attempts to keep control of the Dead Funny Society are merely sideshows to a bitter unfolding of marital conflict, as it emerges that best friends Lisa and Nick (Natalie Walter and Andrew Frame) have problems as deep-seated as Eleanor and Richard.
Perhaps the unexplained changes in characters’ behaviour can be seen as betraying their self-deception and volatility, but they also resemble the arbitrary character shifts so beloved of sitcom writers. In Lysette Anthony’s performance of Eleanor, initially poised between smugness, sexual appetite and desperation, is a typical sitcom construct which a touching late scene merely contradicts. Her statement that she feels “like the poor cow in a second-rate sitcom” is all too understandable.
It’s odd that the most sympathetic character is another stereotype, the gay mother-fixated neighbour, with Derek Hutchinson developing a nice line in unexaggerated camp.
Otherwise a very capable quartet of actors do many things well without convincing us of their reality which, given the meaty fare on offer and the tragic possibilities hinted at, can be a problem. Possibly Matthew Lloyd’s production, with a typically stylish set by Simon Higlett, is a bit undercooked (after a very brief run of previews) and a sharper edge to the farcical scenes might distract from the play’s glib misanthropy.