Dead Funny by name, dead funny by nature…
I have no idea whether the production team behind this revival of Terry Johnson’s 1994 play Dead Funny had the high number of deaths of public figures in the entertainment industry (and in other fields) in 2016 in mind. Either way, Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) makes a number of wry observations throughout the play. One of which is particularly memorable, at least for me: if her husband Richard (Rufus Jones) is chairman of the Dead Funny Society, shouldn’t the passing of a famous entertainer be a cause of celebration? It would mean, after all, that the Society would now, by definition, be able to appreciate the lifetime’s work of the said performer.
Wordplay of this kind continues, on and off, in a most British fashion, and the pauses after certain punchlines are so necessary, as it does take a few nanoseconds to work out a pun, a double entendre or the significance of what is being said at a given point in relation to what was said earlier. As with many a decent comedy play, timing is absolutely critical, and both Brian (Steve Pemberton) and Nick (Ralf Little) make perfectly priceless entrances. Completing the set of on-stage characters is Lisa (Emily Berrington), a fickle and slightly underwritten part, whose migraines she herself bizarrely links to some form of paranormal activity.
The main issue with the proceedings of a meeting of the Dead Funny Society, which appears to reach quorum with just four people (Eleanor is not a member and is only there as Richard’s wife), is that the audience is watching imitations of the likes of Benny Hill and Max Miller, and however much this well-casted company struts their stuff, it simply isn’t the same as the performances such men gave in their heyday. Yes, there’s even a ‘run-off’. I suppose the irony is not lost that Benny Hill apparently “never did live [television broadcasts, only recorded shows]” and yet is now being depicted in a (live) theatre play.
But this is not an entire evening of prancing around trying to be Benny Hill, and the relative sterility of the re-enactment of old sketches becomes a metaphor for another aspect of the narrative. I found the character development of all five people to be surprisingly deep, even as the play turns into something approaching a food fight. A string of events and revelations occur with alarming rapidity in the final scene, and I would have been interested to find out what happened to the characters after the end of the play as it stands. It doesn’t exactly end abruptly, but it does feel like there ought to be a sequel play.
The use of comedy as a form of escapism from dealing with the harsh realities of life even as the characters are forced to confront some pertinent issues is intriguing, providing me with food for thought at the same time as I sat chortling away in the stalls. Twenty-two years after this play premiered, parts of it feel outdated, but overall there is a lot that still retains relevance. It is still not an easy thing for an LGBT+ person to ‘come out’, and couples still have serious fall-outs that bring them to the brink of divorce.
Dead Funny by name, dead funny by nature. Recommended.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Eleanor wants a child. Richard would oblige if he could, but he’s too busy running the Dead Funny Society. When British comedy heroes Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill turn up their toes in the same week the society gather for a celebration of hilarity and laughter. But Eleanor’s grin masks a grimace.
When your marriage is deader than either Morecambe or Wise it’s hard to see the funny side of things.
Terry Johnson’s “Painfully funny and funnily painful” (The Times) comedy, Dead Funny returns for a strictly limited season with Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, In The Club, Humans), Steve Pemberton (The League of Gentleman, Benidorm, Whitechapel), Ralf Little (The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, The Cafe), Emily Berrington (The Inbetweeners 2, Humans, 24) and Rufus Jones (W1A, Hunderby, The Casual Vacancy).
404 Strand, London, WC2R 0NH
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 15+
Show Opened: 27th Oct 2016
Booking Until: 4th Feb 2017
Important Information: Contains scenes of a sexual nature and nudity.