Review: Dead Funny (Vaudeville Theatre) ***

On arriving at the Vaudeville, you are welcomed to the year 1992. Somewhat of a jump for me, given it is the year I was born. What follows is a trip down memory lane of the nation’s favourite comedians, in a daft, dark and dated production (but in a good way!)

Eleanor is a classic sitcom wife and acutely aware of this. Her husband Richard is the life and soul of the party, she the tired, irritable wife. When news of Benny Hill’s death breaks, Richard feels he must forgo their usual Wednesday ‘activities’ to organise a party to commemorate him. As head of Dead Funny he has an obligation, a society which remembers those comedy greats from the past. But with Richard’s showing more passion for comedy effects than sex, will Ellie reach breaking point? Particularly when their friends Nick and Lisa have the perfect family life. Or at least seem to…

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Photo: Alastair Muir

From the moment you enter the theatre, the audience is aware of writer/director Terry Johnson’s TV comedy influences. Quite literally, as Richard Kent’s design of the stage is a TV screen, with classic clips rolling across it before the show. Johnson’s script certainly shows these influences: Richard and Brian are very much 90’s characters with the humour to match. What’s great though is the brash, witty Ellie, whose sarcastic comedy is much more 21st century. This shows a great awareness of the comic landscape and bridges the gap for younger audiences in tone.

Famous comedy sketches are incorporated into the script, reenacted by Richard, Brian, Nick and Lisa. While these scenes are a bit protracted, I wholly believe these characters would perform them; as members of the Dead Funny society, it makes sense within the established world of the play to do a full Morecambe and Wise sketch. Where it doesn’t make sense though is when the comedy crosses with tragedy, jarring the action. In one scene, we go from a classic pie skit to someone shoving a bottle in someone else’s face.

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Photo: Alastair Muir

That’s the thing with theatre: what works on the small screen doesn’t always work on a large stage. In TV, we can cutaway before we see Susan and Ben have an argument in My Family, before any of the Carry On… escapades land the characters in real trouble, or before the camera can shift angles so we don’t see the pie coming. On stage, you see every angle: you see people literally lining up, positioning themselves to get pied in the face, in a completely over-rehearsed scene. That being said, Johnson seems to play on the fact that we can see everything, we can’t cutaway neatly and he frames the play accordingly. Rather than cutaway like a traditional sitcom, we do see the highs and the lows of Richard and Ellie’s relationship: we see the arguments, the sex and trouble. At the end of the play, one of the characters says, ‘Well you’ve got to see the funny side, haven’t you?’ This sentiment somewhat explains the at times jarring duality of this play, both daft and dark. If this play wasn’t a comedy, it would definitely be a tragedy!

Katherine Parkinson shines in this laugh out loud show, deadpan and dead funny. A well-rounded character, Ellie is the heart of the show; while the other characters are more concerned with Charlie Chaplin, Ellie is more concerned with Chernobyl. Rufus Jones’ Richard is a comedy stereotype and fully plays up to this, having the other characters and the audience in fits of laughter. Steve Pemberton’s comic timing equals that of his character’s idols, embodying ‘Brians’ everywhere. Ralf Little and Emily Berrington round out the cast as husband and wife duo, Nick and Lisa, bringing drama and daftness in equal measure.

Dead Funny plays until 4th February 2017 at the Vaudeville Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, visit Nimax Theatres’ website.

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