As a comedy dedicated to comedy greats, the wonderful thing about Dead Funny is that the funniest character in it is the one alleged to be devoid of humour.
Terry Johnson’s play, first performed in 1994 and now on at The Vaudeville Theatre, is set on the night in 1992 when news of Benny Hill’s death broke. To the members of The Dead Funny Society, which celebrates the giants of comedy with earnest devotion, this necessitates a suitable symposium to offer their respects and mourn their mutual loss – drinks, nibbles, costumes and many a retelling of his jokes. Hosted by the group’s pompous chairman Richard, we – like the members – are welcomed into his home, where his long-suffering wife Eleanor must wave goodbye to any quality time with her husband and, instead, grit her teeth in anticipation of a night of quips and skits she’s heard perhaps a thousand times before.
And so it is that one feels an instant sympathy for Katherine Parkinson’s Eleanor, though Parkinson patently does not require our pity: the sardonic star of this production, she wipes the floor with its group of buffoons. With deliberate dryness, she paints Eleanor as a strong woman nonetheless worn down to a state of emotional fragility by the blithe repetition of gags shouted in her direction regardless of any protestation. A woman in her late thirties stuck in a turgid marriage, becoming more aggravated by every second that passes and, with it, taking her another step away from the baby she so unbearably craves, her situation is not helped by the emotionally stunted Richard, who is dedicated to his work as a consultant obstetrician and passionate about the Society but lukewarm towards her at best. Well beyond exasperation, it is not surprising that she has tumbled into the realm of acerbity, but whilst this marks her out as a spoilsport to the others, it also makes her a sort of ally for the audience when such tomfoolery (however funny) is occurring up onstage. Without ever actually breaking the third wall, Parkinson gets tantalizingly close to it, directing her glazed-over gaze at us whilst despairing of where else to turn. It makes her our co-conspirator.
The other actors’ evident glee in rehashing routines from the ‘golden age’ of television comedy helps to make a gratifying show. In particular, James Clyde as Richard does an uncanny Eric Morcambe and Ralph Little attacks his Mr Chow Mein – a Benny favourite who turns every innocuous statement into something filthy – with aplomb. It still doesn’t fail to entertain and, here, plays a well-judged part in raising the tension as the storyline progresses. Apart from these purposely flamboyant moments, Little in fact delivers a restrained performance as Richard’s best friend Nick, showing a striking development from the earlier television work by which he made his name; our ideas about Nick change throughout the play, and Little executes these transitions with sophistication.
Emily Berrington plays Nick’s wife Lisa, who begins as your typical Carry On bimbo and leaves us continually guessing as to whether she really is more than that or not. And then there is Brian, an elderly man who has lived with his mother until her recent death and who, despite being as camp as anything, only summons up the courage to come out of the closet just as tensions reach their peak, thus receiving a devastatingly underwhelming response. Performed with shrewd flamboyance by Steve Pemberton, Brian turns out to be the kindest-hearted of the bunch, and the only one able to see past Eleanor’s bitterness to what is really troubling her. Their poignant coalition in the final moments brings to the fore the true power of comedy – yes, it aids times of joy, it relieves tension, it fills awkward silences, but is also gives release to the deepest pain in a way that nothing else can.
And so it is that Dead Funny pays homage to Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, Norman Wisdom, Hattie Jacques and the like (indeed, their photographs haunt the stage from up above) in articulating what they did for us – just think of the way families tuned in to the formers’ Christmas specials in numbers only dreamt of by television networks today, uniting generations and becoming parts of our lives. There are custard tarts, brown paper bags, thick-rimmed glasses and a wholly British form of gawky nudity – everything you could hope for. Classic comedy meets modern acting, slapstick meets pathos, and comedy reigns supreme.
Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre until 4th February 2017. For tickets, visit the website.