Review: Dead Funny (Vaudeville Theatre)

Terry Johnson directs a revival of his 1994 play about a local comedy society

One need only look at the tormented lives of some of our greatest funnymen to remember that comedy and tragedy, pleasure and pain, are keen bedfellows. And it is this tangled, toxic relationship that is so artfully explored in Terry Johnson‘s revival of his 1994 play.

We join our cast in 1992, at the tail-end of what many deem the Golden Age of television, when the captive Saturday night audiences created by three-channel terrestrial television have made megastars of men like Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd. Among their greatest fans are the members of the Dead Funny Society, a small local group who honour the work of deceased television comedians and who, on learning of Hill’s death, gather to celebrate the beret-wearing behemoth.

Glorious silliness ensues, as the society members don Hill’s most famous costumes, crowbar his catchphrases into their inane small talk and launch into performances of his best routines. While the constant volley of references is a treat for any Hill fans, those of an alternative comical persuasion are catered for, too, by Johnson’s arch script and cracking direction, and the cast of five’s impeccable timing.

However, the prick of pain is never far away. Eleanor, wife of society president Richard, desperately wants a baby, while Richard has deep-rooted issues that are stopping things in their tracks. In an expertly balanced opening scene, Eleanor attempts to revive their sex life via a series of awkward manouevres, recommended by the couple’s therapist, while Richard lies on the living room floor, naked and seething. The effect is hilarious and heartbreaking. Through the gales of laughter we glimpse their marriage – flapping, floundering, gasping for breath, like a fish on a concrete slab.

Katherine Parkinson is undoubtedly the show’s star as the desperate, bewildered Eleanor, prowling the stage with a fury that grows with each martini she downs, and a deep sadness that glints in her shining eyes whenever she thinks she’s not being watched. Her stinging assessment of the group’s fanaticism also provides some of the night’s biggest laughs, as she withers their enthusiasm and punctures their chauvinist gags with the raise of an eyebrow. But the rest of the ensemble are also excellent. Rufus Jones brings a smooth ruthlessness to Richard, Steve Pemberton is adorable as earnest Anorak, Brian, and the quiet detestation between Ralf Little and Emily Berrington as Nick and Lisa is delicious.

By the show’s second half, as old wounds are uncovered, and new hurts are sustained, the action descends into an ingenious tussle; suspender-flashing, custard-pie throwing farce shot through with raw pain and festering resentment. Like the saddest clown show you’ll ever see. Or a new addition to the Carry on films: Carry on Crying.

This is more than just a tribute to TV’s Golden Age comedians; it’s a show that will make your sides split and your heart ache in the same breath. And that’s no mean feat.

Click here to read our interview with Ralf Little

Dead Funny runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 4 February 2017.