On a night when, as it turned out, we needed a good laugh far more than we realised, there could have been few more appropriate plays for my first outing with Theatre Bloggers than Dead Funny; the clue is, after all, right there in the title. Interestingly, though – and not unlike the brewing news story we were trying to avoid – Terry Johnson’s play takes a sudden dramatic turn at the eleventh hour from absurd comedy to something much more serious.
It’s 1992, and Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) is attempting to revive her failing marriage to Richard (Rufus Jones) with some exquisitely awkward sex therapy. Unfortunately, they’re interrupted at the crucial moment by their neighbour Brian (Steve Pemberton) with the news that comedian Benny Hill’s just died – which gives Richard, leader of the Dead Funny Society, just the distraction he’s looking for. But as he arranges a farewell gathering for Benny, little does he realise the surprises the evening has in store…
I was only 10 in 1992, so most of the references to deceased comedians went slightly over my head. But those moments feel dated for a very deliberate reason; the less we can relate to or remember them, the funnier the rest of the play becomes in comparison. And so we find ourselves firmly on Eleanor’s side in her scathing mockery of Richard and his friends, as they reproduce their favourite sketches for (presumably) the millionth time, while refusing to acknowledge the mess that is their own existence. Real life, as it turns out, is much funnier than any comedy sketch – but it can also be a lot more painful.
Katherine Parkinson is spot-on as the quite literally sidelined Eleanor; as the group outsider she’s rarely centre stage, yet still manages to steal the limelight with some perfectly timed and beautifully withering put-downs of the rest of the group – all the more ironic for the fact she’s the one who’s supposed to have no sense of humour. But as her world crumbles, she also shows us the pain of a woman who realises she’s devoted years to a man who can’t – or won’t – give her the one thing she wants. Steve Pemberton is wonderful too as the flamboyant Brian, the one member of the Society who seems genuinely likeable, and who’s also hilarious in his own right (though not always intentionally).
Rufus Jones, in contrast, is splendidly dull and pompous as Eleanor’s husband Richard, so much so you start to wonder why she’s wasted ten years on him. And a strong cast is completed by Emily Berrington – just the right amount of whiny as Society member and smug new mother Lisa – and Ralf Little as her indifferent husband Nick.
Somewhere around the middle of a fairly predictable food fight, everything suddenly gets a bit serious, and the final scenes are unexpectedly sombre – though of course there’s still room for a couple more gags before the curtain falls. And so this outrageous comedy comes to a rather messy and bittersweet end, reminding us that life, however ridiculous it might be, can’t be packaged up neatly into a half-hour sitcom. At some point – unfortunately – it’s time to stop laughing and face reality.
Dead Funny is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 4th February.