This revival of the 1992 West End farce Dead Funny is, well… dead funny.
Eleanor and Richard are a couple with intimacy issues. They’ve reached the second week of sex therapy and are required to spend an hour every other evening naked with each other, touching genitals, but not necessarily climaxing. This particular session is rudely interrupted by that old nemesis of faltering lovers everywhere – the unexpected death of comedian Benny Hill.
This throws the ‘Dead Funny Society’ – of which Richard is Chair – into emergency mode, and a memorial gathering for Hill is quickly arranged. The society’s objects of affection – deceased funnymen of yesteryear – form the cultural scaffold upon which this genuinely hilarious piece hangs its wares. The works of bygone favourites such as Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howard, and Sid James are frequently referenced and celebrated – but do not necessarily set the tone. We were slightly nervous going in – concerned that this vintage style of comedy might not appeal to our oh-so-young-and-trendy sensibilities, but we’re pleased to report that while rightly respectful tributes to the past are frequently made, the show has it’s own very modern sense of wit and wickedness that had us rolling in the aisles.
The five strong cast is an all-star assemblage, any one of whom could find themselves a subject of study should a similar group of comedy aficionados exist a century hence. Holding the whole shebang together is Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Humans) with a sizzling performance as Eleanor – the frustrated housewife with a first-class decree in scathing sarcasm. While Parkinson’s character is the only one involved whom isn’t a member of the Dead Funny Society, her’s is the one that, for our money, embodies real humour – wielding wit like a rapier and, ultimately, embracing it’s healing power with pathos and passion. Rufus Jones (W1A) is a captivating contrast as husband Richard, epitomising the sometimes blinkered fanaticism of the true aficionado, and revealing more than we’d bargained for in a sequence that caused middle-class audience members sitting behind us to audibly shriek…
Emily Berrington (Humans, The Inbetweeners 2) and Ralf Little (The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) give splendid support as new parents Lisa and Nick. Berrington is a particular delight as the kooky, ‘slightly psychic’ Lisa, and Little seriously impresses with a persona far-removed from any of his well-known TV roles – another society member who has allowed adoration of his idols to distract from things that should perhaps be given more prominent placing in his priorities.
Special mention goes to the gloriously gorgeous Steve Pemberton (The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville, Inside No. 9) as the fabulously flamboyant and hopelessly closeted neighbour Brian. Slightly separated from the spotlighted shenanigans of the younger characters, Brian has his own private drama to contend with, and Pemberton effortlessly steals scenes with bumbling brilliance. A joy.
Ostensibly a meditation on the value of humour, Dead Funny doesn’t shy away from embracing the many forms of the art – including recreations of period pieces that would be considered extremely poor taste in this enlightened era. One of the biggest laughs of the night comes from Eleanor deadpanning a filthy joke that she overheard in a pub, and on the other end of the scale is a truly spectacular slapstick routine involving a soda syphon, custard pies, and a trifle.
Much more fun than most West End fare – this is an outrageous absurdity to be savoured, underpinned by poignancy and precision. Its subject matter may be deceased, but this joyful jubilee is well and truly alive.
GT gives Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre — 5/5