Review: Dead Funny at Vaudeville Theatre

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…

Photo credit: Alastair Muir
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

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).

Photo credit: Grace Wordsworth
Photo credit: Grace Wordsworth

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.

Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stagedoor for organising the trip.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

2015 theatre highlights

Yes, I’m officially jumping on the top 10 bandwagon. It had to be done. Like everyone else, I’ve thought long and hard about my choices – and given that I lost count a long time ago of the number of shows I’ve seen this year, it hasn’t been easy.

And here they are – but first, a quick disclaimer. These are ten shows that have meant a lot to me personally, for whatever reason. They might not be the biggest, or the best from a critic’s perspective… but that’s probably because I’m not a critic. I’m just a theatre fan who enjoys writing about it afterwards.

Oh, and they’re in no particular order. Just choosing ten was hard enough – if I had to put them in order too, we’d be here till 2017.

So here goes:

Beans on Toast (Patch of Blue)

My introduction to Patch of Blue came at the Wimbledon Illuminate Festival; I was sold instantly on the promise of lamplight and folk music, and I wasn’t disappointed. The story of a couple like any other couple is so totally human and relatable that the characters begin to feel like your friends, and you feel every up and down in their relationship along with them.

Beans on Toast review for London Theatre 1

Kinky Boots

I haven’t seen the movie of Kinky Boots, and didn’t really know anything about it apart from it had drag queens in it – but I soon fell head over heels for this irresistible, feel-good musical with some catchy tunes from Cyndi Lauper. It might not be highbrow but it is ridiculously good fun, and sometimes that’s really all you need from a night at the theatre.

Kinky Boots review for London Theatre Direct

In The Heights

Lively, colourful and so full of energy it’s a wonder the roof stays on. In The Heights follows the hopes, fears, loves and losses of a close-knit Hispanic community in Washington Heights over three scorching summer days. With a great story, memorable characters and some spectacular dance numbers, In The Heights is an irresistible joy to watch.

In The Heights review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

Skin in Flames (stonecrabs theatre)

The best-known work by Spanish playwright Guillem Clua, this incredibly tense political thriller sees a photojournalist returning for the first time to the war-torn country where he took his most famous picture. It’s an ingeniously crafted piece and a gripping drama, but also leaves the audience with some serious questions about moral responsibility.

Also, Skin in Flames was the first time I saw a quote from my review on the wall, so it will always be special to me for that reason 🙂

Skin in Flames

Skin in Flames review for London Theatre 1

Consolation (Théâtre volière)

An unexpected delight, about two lost souls who find consolation in their mutual friendship. Nothing about this play is predictable; set in France, it tells the unlikely story of a woman convinced she was a Cathar heretic in a former life, and a young re-enactor at the local museum. As they both try to make sense of their lives, the results are at times funny, at others moving, but always fascinating to watch.

Consolation review for London Theatre 1

The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick Theatre)

The Scottsboro Boys, a musical by Kander and Ebb, is based on the true story of nine black teenagers convicted of rape in 1930s Alabama. The show starts out fun and light-hearted, but soon takes a more sinister turn as the boys’ situation worsens. This deeply moving and chilling tale of injustice is one that stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

The Scottsboro Boys review for London Theatre Direct

And Then Come The Nightjars (Theatre503)

Set during Britain’s foot and mouth crisis of 2001, Bea Roberts’ rural drama is a touching exploration of the friendship between a gruff Devon farmer and the local vet. It might not sound like a laugh a minute, but the chalk and cheese relationship between the two is unexpectedly funny and uplifting, with some truly moving performances.

And Then Come The Nightjars review


 The Nether

Note to self: make sure you know what a play’s about before you go and see it… The Nether is a very disturbing story that messes with your head, set in a not-too-distant future, in which humans can live in a completely virtual world. The play poses some difficult questions – most notably, if you do something bad in the Nether but not in the real world, are you still guilty? Not one for the faint-hearted, but worth seeing for Es Devlin’s spectacular set alone.

The Nether review for London Theatre Direct

To Kill a Mockingbird

I missed this production at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, so when it transferred to the Barbican after a nationwide tour, I jumped at the chance to see it. Starring Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch, and some of the best child actors I’ve ever seen, this play is a loving homage to the novel that inspired it; I’m so glad I got a second chance to see it.

To Kill a Mockingbird review

The Forbidden (Doll’s Eye Theatre)

This play still makes me shudder a little bit; it’s that unsettling. The Forbidden is a gripping story about four former school friends with a dark secret, which takes great delight in wrong-footing its audience with its twists and turns. But it’s also a startlingly accurate depiction of the way teenage girls interact… and it also ruined 5ive for me forever. But that’s okay.

The Forbidden review for London Theatre 1

A few honourable mentions, because I can’t help myself: Cyprus Sunsets, So It Goes, Blood Brothers, Rotterdam, The Railway Children, Proof and The State vs John Hayes. I’d better stop there or this bit could go on all day…

What were your theatre highlights this year?

Happy New  Year – here’s to more great theatre in 2016!

Theatre round-up: 7 Sept 2015

In the week that London got kinky, here’s my theatre round-up:

Kinky boots

I went to a preview of Kinky Boots last week, and basically haven’t shut up about it since (apologies to my friends, family and Twitter followers). I haven’t seen the movie, so didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for – I figured it would be good fun, but wasn’t expecting to be so totally blown away. Kinky Boots is based on real events and tells the story of Charlie Price, who teams up with new friend Lola (a.k.a. Simon) to create a range of fabulous footwear for men. With star performances from Killian Donnelly, Amy Lennox and Matt Henry, and some truly sensational dance numbers, Kinky Boots is ridiculously good fun; you can’t help but leave the theatre smiling. I already want to see it again (and then again).

Kinky Boots review for London Theatre Direct

Thoroughly Modern Millie

A lively and high-spirited revival based on the 1967 movie, in the intimate setting of the Landor theatre. Thoroughly Modern Millie is the story of a Kansas girl who arrives in 1920s New York determined to make a new life for herself by getting a job and then marrying her boss. Simple, right? Ironically, a lot of the attitudes are actually not very modern at all (and the show also features a bizarre and very un-PC sub-plot about a woman pretending to be Chinese). But the show brings to life the spirit of the 1920s, particularly during the fantastic dance numbers, which are worthy of a much bigger production, and impeccably performed by the small, hard-working cast. Credit also to the brilliant five-piece band, who were great despite being a four-piece for half the show because their bass player got stuck on the Northern Line.

Thoroughly Modern Millie review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

The Man Who Had All the Luck

Arthur Miller’s first play to be produced is a fable about a man who seems to get everything he wants in love, business and life in general. But as his friends and family all lose out on the thing they want most in the world, he starts to wonder when his own luck will change. This revival by End of Moving Walkway, to coincide with the centenary of Miller’s birth, features a strong cast, with one actor playing no fewer than four parts, and a minimalist set with a hidden secret. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, with characters the audience can really relate to, the play invites us to consider where our luck comes from, and the role of each individual in creating our own destiny.

The Man Who Had All The Luck review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

Theatre round-up

Next week’s theatre

Jane Eyre – National Theatre

The Christians – Gate Theatre

And Then Come The Nightjars – Theatre503