It is probably a truism that you are either Dead or Funny or aspiring to be one or the other. Rarely, people can be Dead Funny. Who those people are in the 21st Century is a matter of some speculation. Unlike the 60s and 70s when Dead Funny comedy had a shape, a sensibility, a face – or faces. Tony Hancock, The Carry On Gang Crew, Frankie Howerd, Morecombe and Wise, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill, Hattie Jacques. Terry Johnson’s 1994 hit Dead Funny, revived with a cast of television stars, is sometimes dead and rarely funny. It really was better in the good old days.
From the moment Steve Pemberton’s confirmed old bachelor, Brian, gingerly carries his carefully hand-made trifle to the side table, it is inevitable that cake, custard and jelly will be dumped on someone. The interesting question is who?
Apart from the trifle-maker, the potential targets cover some range: the pained Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) who desperately wants a baby; her husband, the imperious hysterectomy specialist, Richard (Rufus Jones) who is interested in any vagina other than his wife’s; the fertile psychic, Lisa, whose headaches are portents of disaster and whose clothes are seduction-regulation tight; and her husband, Nick, a hapless sort doomed to be second fiddle.
Given that they have all gathered for a kind-of-wake to mark the unexpected passing of Benny Hill, no trifling matter, the assumed solemnity of the occasion is fragile enough. Add two fracturing marriages, revelations about lineage, declarations about sexuality, alcohol, a group of anoraks worshipping the great Gods of English comedy with a fervour that would put Star Wars fans to shame, and the rehashing of well known comedy routines from the trophy shelves of the English comedians that all but Eleanor worship, and you have the potential for vicious hilarity of the blackest kind and double entrendres so plentiful that they have their own pile-up when reality slams into them.
This is Terry Johnson’s revival of his own play, Dead Funny, which was first seen in the West End in 1994. It is now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, the same theatre where the original premiered, starring Zoë Wanamaker and David Haig.
Unlike Cleopatra, age has withered this work, which is very much of its time and the decades before it. Post Jimmy Saville, post advances in gender and sexual equality, and well past the time where sexual objectification of women was considered perfectly fine for prime time comedy programmes of the slap and tickle kind, Dead Funny is not that funny.
No one under the age of forty in the audience I saw this production with laughed very much, and when they did it was often at very odd things, the kind of laughter one associates with mild hysteria or incomprehension. This is unsurprising as, really, what prospect is there that that section of the audience will know the routines of Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd sufficiently well to get the jokes based upon them?
Unless the repertoire of the great comedy Gods is presented in a way which is itself, intrinsically, funny, it is hard for the material to work. One can’t appreciate good or bad impersonations of great comics unless one knows the work of the great comics. Merely showing black and white snaps of the great performers prior to the play starting tells you nothing about what those performers were famous for or how their routines worked.
Directing this production, Johnson seems to assume that everyone who sees Dead Funny will know about the original material of the performers who inspired aspects of the narrative. They don’t. It seems also to be assumed that the old one-room sitcom format will seem fresh or cute. It doesn’t. And it seems to be assumed that the sexual politics of the 60s – 90s will be accepted without dissent. It’s not.
Still, there is a deal to like about Johnson’s play, which, in its time, was a true fusion of Benny Hill/Frankie Howerd and Alan Ayckbourn. It looks at why sexy is funny, and not, and why funny is sexy, or not. Death is a constant companion here, whether it is the death of a revered comedian, death of a marriage, death of a friendship or death of a way of living. In turns bitter and relentlessly silly, it offers real rewards.
But its success turns on blisteringly accurate performances, superb comic timing, a smart, snappy pace and the acute juxtaposition of toe-curling embarrassment with frenzied comedy, homages to comic greatness and, in the latter stages of the play, when the inter-personal stakes are highest, flat out farce. Cue the trifle.
It’s early days, and no doubt time and repetition will assist, but timing and pace are not as they might be. Scenes drag, punchlines are ill-timed, lines are talked over or cues are not snappy. This all results in a lot of air being unwisely let out of the comic balloon. Acting for television requires very different skills to comic performances on stage and not everyone in the cast seems at home on stage.
On the other hand, the darker elements of the play are well served. Parkinson is bracingly tortured and cutting as Eleanor and her internal sorrow about an inability to conceive is crystal clear. Brittle and bruising, vulnerable and bruised, Parkinson’s Eleanor is starkly honest, carefully thought through. She is funny, too, in that acidic ice-queen way, her public persona in dire contrast to her real feelings.
If the comedy and silliness of the other characters worked as they should, Parkinson’s performance would provide a perfect, cutting balance. Here, though, her assiduous work threatens to capsize the play. It’s not her fault and perhaps it is a structural inevitability for Dead Funny now that memories of Benny Hill et al have faded, but Parkinson slightly overwhelms proceedings.
Rufus Jones, who has something of the air of Terry Scott about him, is lukewarm as Richard, the pompous medic who heads the society which worships comedians of the British kind. Like Parkinson, he finds the dark side of the character easily enough, but the flippancy, ardent enthusiasm and absurdist tendencies – not so much. His impersonations of great comic performances are odd: not good enough to indicate a steep immersion in them and not so bad as to be funny on that account.
It is the same with Ralf Little and Steve Pemberton in that respect: the recounting of revered routines is odd. But Little does find a better balance than Jones, unleashing his inner geek and dousing him in faux-manly charm. Little’s Nick is a lonely, slightly desperate chap who takes refuge in the escapism that Hill, Howerd and Hancock (and the others) personify. Little nails his splendid moment of desolate confession and perfectly sets off horrified laughter when that chicken comes home to roost. It is hard not to feel sorry for Nick, despite his obvious flaws.
As Lisa, Emily Berrington does an excellent over-the-sofa tumble with knickers akimbo, but otherwise barely scrapes the surface of the character. Lisa ought to be effortlessly sensual, composed and assured in all the areas where Eleanor’s fears overwhelm her. Her hold over the men in the society should be absolute. Berrington plays the role more on simmer than steam, more vacant than blonde, more detached than insinuating. This is a role that might have been played by a young Barbara Windsor: it needs cheeky insouciance in spades.
Pemberton plays Brian precisely as one would expect him too; there are no new horizons here. Slightly too sentimental, Pemberton does convince as a sad outsider in a closed circle, but the role offers greater opportunities for zany humour than are realised.
The group dynamic works best in the down moments. The real comic highs are never reached. The inevitable routine starring the trifle is not as slick or polished as it might be: laughs are obvious rather than unexpected, telegraphed rather than instantaneous.
There are some nice moments involving musical interludes and, in those, the company exacts a whimsical jollity which is precisely the right tone. This Dead Funny reminds us, forcibly, that high comedy is but a whisker away from high tragedy. Parkinson’s strength leaves you with plenty to mull over but don’t expect to leave the auditorium with a jaunty step whistling theme songs from long finished television series.