Tuesday, December 20, 2016

DEAD FUNNY at the Vaudeville Theatre - Black comedy...

I had been kicking myself that I missed seeing Terry Johnson's play DEAD FUNNY in 1994 at the Vaudeville Theatre when it starred David Haig and Zoe Wanamaker, so I was thrilled to hear that it was being revived at the same theatre.

The revival is directed by Johnson himself - who is known as much for being a director these days as a writer - and, interestingly, is now cast with tv comedy performers over more established stage actors. It probably makes more sense for the box-office but it did lead to some fairly thin performances dotted around the five-strong cast.

Johnson's play in retrospect plays a little like the classic comedy of embarrassment ABIGAIL'S PARTY with an uneasy social gathering exposing the fragile relationships of both hosts and guests.  That it misses the exquisite agony of ABIGAIL is unsurprising but it has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and has it's own minor moments of insight.

Eleanor and Richard are a middle-class, professional couple but Eleanor is quietly - and not-so-quietly at times - desperate to have a child.  To paraphrase Big Mama in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, when a marriage goes on the rocks the rocks can be found in the bed and that's what has happened to Eleanor and Richard.  Eleanor has been seeing a relationship councillor and attempts to engage him in early evening sexual therapy which Richard takes part in with all the enthusiasm of a patient being operated on without anesthetic.

Eleanor is also coming to the end of her tether with Richard's main joy in life, being the chairman of a small appreciation society for British comedians.  She is finding it increasingly easy to ridicule his passion (the only passion he shows her) and is openly tart to his friends.  The society is struggling for members due to a similar group attracting more fans but Richard seems to enjoy being looked up to by Brian, a lonely man now his mother has died, and Nick and Lisa, a young married couple facing their own problems dealing with a new baby - another thorn in Eleanor's side.

20th April 1992 - Gauche Brian interrupts the couple's sex therapy session - much to Richard's *ahem* relief - but he has come to break the news that Benny Hill has died.  Richard throws a wake to mourn the comedian and with Katherine spitting crushing observations from the sidelines, the group reminisce about the comedians that mean so much to them and their feelings of loss when one of their idols die.

Things take a turn for the worse when Katherine and Nick slowly begins to realize that, far from being impotent, Richard has been having an affair with Lisa which leads to violent recriminations and fighting which ironically feature custard pies and a very large bowl of trifle.  Even Brian's emotional coming-out declaration can not stop the rot finally being revealed in Eleanor and Richard's life together.

For all it's sexual frankness DEAD FUNNY feels oddly cosy and, after the blazing arguments and recriminations, it ends with two friends laughing together at the daftness of life and while it's good to end on a positive note, you cannot help but feel that Johnson has rather pulled back at the last minute.

The afore-mentioned thinness in performance showed up most strongly with Katherine Parkinson and Rufus Jones as Eleanor and Richard.  Parkinson, although a strong presence on stage, was too harsh in her caustic delivery; when she had to touch the heart to really show Eleanor's despair it seemed beyond her, while Jones' bland Teflon performance left this important character a cypher - not even his full frontal scene stayed in the memory.

However there was depth galore in the wonderful Steve Pemberton as Brian, socially awkward and always in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He slowly moved the character from a bumbling comic staple - the gormless friend - to a man who was grieving for the only comfort he ever knew and the uncertainty in his future, while still being very funny.

I also liked Ralf Little as Nick, the cuckolded friend who goes from Max Miller impressions to angry confrontation in the blink of an eye.  He has always been a subtle performer and he was very good here, one of his rare ventures onto stage.  He was well partnered by Emily Berrington as the duplicitous Lisa.

Terry Johnson has directed his play well, switching the mood from comedy to drama effortlessly.  There are precious few comedies on in the West End now and surely laughs are needed now more than ever so I would recommend it, catch it at the Vaudeville until 4th February.

No comments: