More than 20 years after it first ran at the Hampstead Theatre, Terry Johnson’s comedy Dead Funny has now been revived for a limited run at its original 1994 West End home of the Vaudeville Theatre. It follows the lives of five friends, four of whom belong to the ‘Dead Funny Society’: a group dedicated to following celebrated comedians.
Eleanor longs to have a baby, but her husband Richard claims he would rather live a celibate life & doesn’t want to be touched. Lisa & Nick have started a family, but their relationship is also facing problems. Brian’s mother has recently died, leaving him alone – with only the Dead Funny Society for comfort & company. When they find out that legendary comic Benny Hill has died, a gathering to commemorate his passing brings all of their troubles out into the open…
The story is set in 1992, and all of the action takes place in Richard & Eleanor’s living room. Richard Kent’s design is meticulous in its detail; the living room is the focal point, but it still has the feel of a real home, thanks to the hallway & staircase in the background, and the window at the side letting ‘natural’ light in.
The set doesn’t change for the duration of the play, so it is curious that there are lengthy transitions between scenes. Thankfully there is only one in each act, however they are long & laboured enough for the audience to get bored & start talking – consequently, when everything is finally ready for the next part, it can’t start as snappily as the director (also Johnson) presumably hoped. The pacing & balance of the show in general is a bit off. For one thing, it just starts to feel like it’s going somewhere when the curtain falls for the interval – it does create a little bit of a cliffhanger, but it feels a bit awkward when the second act picks up immediately from where it left off. Most of the big laughs come in the first act and, though there are some surprises along the way, everything plays out quite predictably.
It also doesn’t seem clear what the play is trying to achieve. Is it about celebrating past great comics? Is it about telling an important story? In trying to celebrate, it often seems like emulation – as well as most of the funnier second act moments being recycled material (the members copying their idols) that is a bit out of place. Any important storyline is a bit lost in the midst of the farce the show descends into. Comedy & tragedy do often sit well together, it’s true, but the styles need to be compatible. For me, slapstick & innuendo don’t fit with Eleanor’s story, the central plot of the piece. Made even more apparent with her as the only non-member of the society in the play.
Whilst the jury’s out on the material, the performances from the entire cast are excellent.
Ralf Little & Emily Berrington work well together as Nick & Lisa (the latter certainly living up to a line from Nick about her voice being annoying); their bickering is a good source of laughs. Little’s impersonations of the comics they idolise are spot on – as are those of co-star, Rufus Jones – though the inclusion of Mr Chow Mein is maybe questionable, given how of its time that routine is. He makes a good fist of it, nonetheless.
Steve Pemberton as Brian is a brilliant gooseberry, excelling at arriving at inopportune moments – in particular at the end of the first act. Rufus Jones is wonderfully self-centred as Richard, and bares much more than expected at a very early stage of the show…
Katherine Parkinson is, without doubt, one of our finest comedic actresses. She has impeccable timing, with incredible reactions to what’s going on around her. On top of that, Parkinson brings a great amount of integrity to Eleanor’s story – any sense of believability is down to her performance.
My verdict? A bit of a mixed bag that fantastic performances don’t always manage to save – quite funny, but definitely not dead funny.