It has been 24 years since Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny first appeared in the West End, and time has been exceptionally kind to it. If anything, my unbridled enjoyment of this excellent revival supersedes the original. I cannot remember when last I’ve heard such sustained laughter from a comedy that also happens to be dead serious.
The time is 1992, and the territory might, at a pinch, be called Ayckbournian. We’re in the home of Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) and her husband Richard (Rufus Jones). A successful obstetrician by profession, Richard is a member of the Dead Funny Society, a group devoted to old-time musical hall and its contemporary exponents. (Think Bennie Hill, Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, etc.) Other devotees of the society include Nick (Ralf Little), Nick’s wife Lisa (Emily Berrington) and their mutual, closeted friend Ralph (Steve Pemberton).
Though the laughs engendered by the catchphrases, funny voices and sketches of the gagsmiths they all revere provide the surface pleasure of their lives, underneath the jokes and ribald humour, several skeletons lie buried. Richard, for example, cannot abide the thought of any physical contact with Eleanor, who’s obsessed with having a baby. Nothing she says or does changes his mind.
Acting on her therapist’s advice, she somehow manages to persuade her reluctant spouse to strip naked and, in one of the boldest and funniest scenes in the play, attempts to arouse him by finger-massaging his groin. As for Nick and Lisa, who have a baby son, their marriage is also more hiss than bliss.
What finally opens the closet door, resulting in the release of their various skeletons, is the news of the deaths of both Bennie Hill and Frankie Howerd, who died within one day of each other. Appropriately enough, the play climaxes in a bout of music-hall slapstick as both couples, hurling life-changing incriminations as well as custard-pies at each other, irretrievably alter the course of their lives.
The dying fall of the play’s final moments, in which an abandoned, desolate Eleanor finds herself being comforted by Brian, who has just outed himself as gay, miraculously combines hilarity with heartbreak. No easy feat.
Playwright Johnson, who also directs, effectively melds the play’s farcical elements with the sadness at its core, and draws flawless performances from his spot-on cast. There’s no point in singling them out; they’re all brilliant. A super, must-see revival.