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Terry Johnson's comedy Dead Funny is making a welcome return to the West End in its original home at the Vaudeville Theatre later this month. Set in north London in the early 1990s, the play follows Eleanor and Richard who undergo sexual therapy sessions in order to prepare them for trying for a baby. Whilst Eleanor is more focused on the task in hand, Richard and his neighbours seem more focused on their local Dead Funny Society which celebrates the work of England's best-loved comics, including the recently departed Benny Hill and Frankie Howard.
'Benidorm' and 'The League of Gentleman' star Steve Pemberton leads the cast alongside Katherine Parkinson, Ralf Little, Emily Berrington and Rufus Jones. No stranger to the West End having previously starred in the Donmar Warehouse's London premiere of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone and She Stoops to Conquer at the National Theatre, we caught up with him in between rehearsals for this exciting revival to hear more about the production.
Dom O'Hanlon: Steve, thanks for for finding time to speak with us mid-rehearsal. How is Dead Funny coming together?
Steve Pemberton: Rehearsals are going incredibly well I have to say, we're all enjoying ourselves. We're coming to the end of the third week so we're just doing that thing of sticking together all the bits and realising how little time we have in between each of the bits. It's fantastic that we have the writer of the play Terry Johnson directing it because he's so clear about what he wants, there's no discussion over what the writer might have meant by this line or that line. He's a brilliant director, very unfussy and precise. It's an incredibly funny, blistering, dramatic, squirming play, it's got everything in it, I'm enjoying it!
DOH: What drew you to this 21st anniversary production of Dead Funny?
SP: I had seen it, I couldn't believe it had been 21 years ago, that shocked me. I saw it in the same theatre, The Vaudeville, it absolutely blew me away, it was one of the best nights in the theatre of my life. It's because of the combination – you're crying with laughter one minute and then the next minute it's full of searing emotions. It really pulls the rug from under you, it's the same with all of Terry's writing, so when it came through I didn't hesitate, I was delighted to be part of it.
DOH: Does the play still resonate with audiences in 2016?
SP: That's the interesting thing that it's now a period play. It's set in April 1992, from our perspective in 2016 it seems like a long time ago. We have a mobile phone coming out and the characters are all looking at it saying “oh you've got one of those have you”? Terry has been very mindful of that and it's one of those where you have to tell people who don't know Benny Hill, because his stuff hasn't aged that well so it's not often repeated so much. You have to inform a younger audience who he was and just how big of a star he was at the time and who his characters were. Younger people may need a bit of catching up with it, but it's all explained within the play. In terms of the actual writing it's not dated at all – it's fantastic.
DOH: What's it like working with Terry Johnson as both writer and director – does it help to have him working both jobs?
SP: Terry has seen a lot of productions over the years and he's directed it before with different casts. He's certainly not mentioned other productions – it's not a rehash of what he's done before. No one else in the cast other than me has seen it, so he's certainly approaching it in a fresh way. He's changing lines of dialogue here and there, there's bits where he's saying “oh I never liked that bit” and just changing it, so we're finding new things about it all the time. He's a really impressive director and hopefully he's going to be happy with the results.
DOH: It's such a talented cast of well known comedy actors – how is everyone bringing their unique skills to the table?
SP: To a degree – it's certainly not a free for all. The play is so good it's not like we're getting to bits where we have to come up with something over it. What you want to do is make what's there work. The hardest thing is within in the play some of the characters are doing impressions of Morcambe and Wise and Frankie Howard – it's hard because you can't really watch a lot of footage of them. He's definitely using people's talents but we're not sort of improvising bits and making stuff up. It's a very open rehearsal room and people can suggest anything. It's really relaxed – that's the wrong word because we're obviously very focussed to get it on - but to be honest we're all having a really good laugh.
DOH: Is it difficult rehearsing a comedy when you know so much of it relies on an audience's live response? How do you prepare for that?
SP: Because I've seen the play and I know just how much laughter there is, there are certain bits where I know people will laugh. The further you go on in rehearsal and the understudies come in or the design team come in and it's so exciting when you get people who haven't seen it before and you hear their reaction. There are certainly bits where we know we'll get a response, but we don't really know until that first preview and we hear them. Sometimes it's the bits that you're not expecting that go down the best. If you think in your head this will get a big laugh then it doesn't...that's what previews are for! I'm itching to get it in front of an audience. It's not just a play where people laugh a lot, I remember lots of gasping at bits that happen and wincing, you get this whole orchestration of sound. I'm desperate for people to see it as I just think it's one of the best plays that I've been involved with.
DOH: What do you feel makes a successful stage comedy?
SP: Well I think farce, when it's done well and when it's underpinned by real characters and real situations and high stakes, you can't beat it, where one laugh compounds and builds the next. Noises Off is a prime example of that and I think Dead Funny certainly has elements of that. You've got to care about the people and this play essentially is about people's relationships, love and sex and marriage – all of that as well as comedy. If you can skate between the tragedy and the comedy, which Terry totally does, then it works. It's hard – that's why sitcoms are only half an hour long, because it's really hard to laugh for that long. You couldn't watch 'Faulty Towers' for an hour because you'd have to have bits where you need to stop laughing and so you've got to artfully create lulls and build it back up again. I compare Terry to a conductor, it's very orchestrated. I think for a good stage comedy you just want to have the audience in the palm of your hands and to control. That's what we'll be aiming to do.
Dead Funny runs at the Vaudeville Theatre from 27 October to 4 February 2017.