Review of Dead Funny by Terry Johnson at the Vaudeville Theatre
As a genre, comedy is in a constant state of evolution and revolution. But though tastes may change, the often cruel comedy of life remains a constantly churning wheel, and we continue to suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and misfortune in the hands we are dealt. Comedy is one way we channel it.
Terry Johnson's 1994 comedy may have been written just twenty-two years ago, but in some ways it is very much a period piece now -- the ushers remind us as we enter the theatre of the time period by saying "Welcome to 1992" -- and yet timeless, too, in its portrait of failing marriages, infidelity and a woman facing the prospect of childlessness.
The play was originally premiered at Hampstead Theatre before transferring to the Vaudeville, and that is again its West End home now, amplifying a sense of deja vu. But for younger audience members, the comedy genre it celebrates of such TV and theatrical personalities as Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd (who died a day apart in 1992), Norman Wisdom, Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper could be from another planet.
So even as the play replays some of their most famous catchphrases, some of its resonances may be lost now: you can't laugh with recognition at something you don't recognise. Yet for those of us who do, this is a warm, affectionate trip down memory lane -- simultaneously made raw and revealing for the pain the laughter is hiding in the people telling the jokes.
Terry Johnson's beautifully acted and staged revival gets the comic and tragic tone just right in an evening rich in laughter as well as pathos. It begins with a naked revealing scene, in every sense, of a 37-year-old surgeon and his slightly older wife trying to get intimate again, under coaching from their sex therapist, as the wife pines for for a child. They are played with hangdog frustration and uptight emotion by Rufus Jones and Katherine Parkinson respectively. But as three friends from the comic appreciation society that the husband runs variously gatecrash, this attempt is hilariously thwarted, and Ralph Little and Emily Berrington as new parents and Steve Pemberton as a loner singleton are equally superb.
Johnson, as writer and director, extracts maximum comic mileage from the farcical proceedings, especially in the second act, but also touches sensitively on bigger disappointments. It is very welcome to see the play back in a West End largely starved of comedy, apart from the three shows in the Goes Wrong franchise of The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery.
What the Press Said...
"Comedy may have changed radically since Johnson wrote the play, but it still holds a disturbing mirror up to all those of us who worship at the shrine of dead comics."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A perfectly crafted homage to the farcical gagsmiths of old."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Johnson keeps you aware that real blood is flowing amidst the custard-pie slapstick of the final scene...Dead impressive."
Paul Taylor for The Independent