4 November 2016
Any writer that calls his play Dead Funny is setting a high bar. Fortunately, Terry Johnson’s production remains riotous two decades after it won critical acclaim, along with plaudits for David Haig and Zoe Wannamaker.
Morose and miserable Richard (Rufus Jones) is enduring an ice-cold relationship with his frustrated wife Ellie (Katherine Parkinson). She wants to have a baby whilst he is much more interested in Lisa, the wife of his fellow society member Nick.
The only outlet for Richard’s angst is the Dead Funny Society, which meets to pay tribute to their favourite deceased comedians. The drama plays out as they gather in honour of Benny Hill, although the evening takes a different, and darker, turn.
The Dead Funny members all throw themselves into comedy to mask their own problems, not realising their own lives are playing out in an increasingly farcical and comedic fashion. They ostracise the sardonic Ellie for having no sense of humour, oblivious to the fact that she is funnier than all of them and their hackneyed recycled sketches.
Johnson’s writing is complex and masterful, switching frequently and seamlessly between light and shade. The jokes hit the mark and are well timed, whilst many of the exchanges between Richard and Ellie are achingly sad.
It is a wonderfully written play that works on several, so why no fifth star? Some of the Benny Hill shtick that the Dead Funny crew repeat ad nauseum has not dated particularly well, especially the Chinaman sketch. This is obviously not Johnson’s fault but it does mean the scenes where they reel off ‘classic’ sketches are ironically far less funny than the rest of the play.
The undoubted star of the show is Katherine Parkinson as Ellie. Devastated by her loveless marriage and anguished by her husband’s tragic comedy club, Parkinson gives a compelling blend of spite and sadness, combined with ferocious comic timing. She gets many of the best lines but it is still a virtuoso performance from a brilliant comic actor.
Rufus Jones is amusingly sullen as the brooding Richard, whilst Ralf Little and Emily Berrington make a sweet and charismatic couple as Nick and Lisa. Steve Pemberton is also remarkably sweet and powerful as the (not so) secretly gay Eddie, adding much-needed levity to the play’s darker moments.
Johnson directs his own material and the sense of timing and pace is exactly right, although the ending felt a bit flat following a massive build-up. Despite these quibbles, Dead Funny is a magnificent tribute to the art of comedy that more than lives up to its billing.