“Benny Hill? Oh, for fuck’s sake…”
I started off Terry Johnson’s production of Dead Funny concerned that the comedy references on the pre-show curtain – Eric and Ernie, Carry On, Benny Hill – were outwith those to which my tastes naturally incline. Turns out what I should have been on the lookout for was an Alan Ayckbourn play in sheep’s clothing. And if that’s the way your preferences go, as it seems with the majority of the print critics, then this is the play for you.
Dead Funny was written in 1994 but is set two years earlier in the couple of days when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd shuffled off this mortal coil. At a time before the death of celebrities, particularly comedians, is marked with the sharing of YouTube clips and gifs of favourite jokes and comic scenes, ‘The Dead Funny Society’ marks the passing of their faves by reenacting their work. That’s all well and good for chairman Richard but his increasingly frustrated wife Eleanor who is desperate for a child.
Thus a play about the legacy of bygone television comedians is spliced with one about marriages in crisis, the link found being people seeking refuge in the celebration of the former as a way of escaping troubles in the latter. Johnson – directing his own play – finds himself in the curious position of working on an entirely period piece. Not in terms of the actual comedy material, nostalgia will always be current to fans, but as far as the specificity of its setting goes, not to mention the questionable gender politics. it’s just thoroughly dated.
Fortunately, it has been cast extremely well. Katherine Parkinson imbues Ellie with real conviction in all her marital angst, the eye-opening first scene gets down to the naked truth of her problems with Rufus Jones’ Richard in bravely full-frontal style. And her position on the outside of the group allows her to scathingly mock their antics – Steve Pemberton, Ralf Little and Emily Berrington all bringing their own quirks and issues to bear, before the whole thing collapses in farce. So you could well find Dead Funny dead funny if it ticks your particular boxes.