Two parts farce, one part relatively devastating portrait of a failing marriage. An interesting combination – which it pulls off – but you do leave feeling Dead Funny is a play of its time, rather than a play for now.
Urgent. Benny Hill has died. Cue an impromptu gathering of the ‘Dead Funny’ society, a micro-community of music hall comedian superfans who reside somewhere in the home counties, and spend their meetings quoting, impersonating and reminiscing about their idols.
That’s the basis for Dead Funny, first performed at the Vaudeville in 1994 (my dad still has his programme) and now revived in the same theatre (pretty cool). It’s two parts lively and consistently on-the-money farce, and one part relatively devastating portrait of a failing marriage: an interesting combination. Whilst it celebrates the comedians who transitioned across to TV at the end of music hall era, of whom my knowledge is fairly limited, it spends far more time turning the spotlight on their audience: the British public. So don’t be put off if you’re equally uninformed about Benny Hill and co, it doesn’t prevent you from understanding what is going on.
We meet Richard and Eleanor in their front room (the setting for the whole play), with the former seemingly unable to touch his wife anymore. Desperate to have a baby, she’s forcing him to watch sex therapy videos – but hates his idolisation of comedy and comes ians, seems entirely unhappy with her partner and has resorted to alcohol. Doesn’t sound particularly hilarious when you put it that way, but the writing is bold and unsentimental – and the scene, which quickly escalates to Richard lying naked on the stage, sets the tone for the evening.
Eleanor, in particular, is played with great finesse by Katherine Parkinson – she probably has the easiest part to steal the show with, but should be recognised for doing so nevertheless. Ironically, considering she’s the only character not to be a member of the society, Eleanor’s the sole character to display genuine wit. Parkinson hovers around the fringes of the stage, interjecting with comically bitter commentary from the shadows, and the play’s all the better for having this perspective and not leaving the laughs to the more slapstick offerings of the others.
As per many pro reviews of it, I agree you leave slightly feeling it’s a play of its time, rather than a play for now. The outdated references to comedians (who are now very different to the way the characters discuss them) didn’t bother me too much, but the whole writing style, plus specific directorial decisions for this production, definitely have a dated quality which is impossible to ignore. Perhaps these staging decisions – such as stage managers entering the stage and moving furniture round in half-light during short breaks – are deliberate, and it’s as much a homage to the old West End comedies – of which now there are very very few, other than musicals and the Play that goes Wrong trilogy – as it is to the comedians of music hall. But I’m not entirely confident on that.
I took my parents as a belated Christmas present, we had a fun night and I’d recommend it for that purpose. Much to its credit, Dead Funny isn’t just a light-hearted celebration about the redemptive powers of comedy and has an interesting bite. It’s an interesting show – bold to mix energetic slapstick/farce with the believable, and bleak, unravelling of a relationship – which I did enjoy, but not one I’m going to be raving about for weeks.