Vaudeville Theatre, London - until 4 February 2017
deftly directs the West End revival of his 1994 play, a sharply observed often painfully funny dark comedy with several dramatic twists, as well as a good dose of slapstick and added custard pies. The action takes place on the eve of the death of TV comic Benny Hill in 1992. The Dead Funny Society are a group of comedy enthusiasts, sharing a common interest in laughter. They regularly meet to re-enact classic sketches and celebrate the late great comedy masters such as Frankie Howerd, Max Miller & Eric Morecambe.
Richard, a consultant obstetrician is married to Eleanor. He routinely performs 5 hysterectomies a day and professes to not wanting to be touched "anywhere", to the frustration of his wife Eleanor who craves a baby.
Katherine Parkinson's Eleanor, who often has the wittiest of lines, watches her marriage disintegrate before her eyes; the more she tries to connect with her husband, the more distant and cold he becomes. Rufus Jones's Richard, a stifled man-child of huge proportions, ignores the constant advances of his wife, even when lying fully naked on the floor whilst receiving relaxation "therapy", a scene so painfully funny that Jones should be awarded a West End medal for services to full frontal nakedness.
As Brian, Steve Pemberton commands the stage from his first entrance in a multi-coloured anorak clutching a Tesco carrier bag. A lovable aging mama's boy with a poignant vulnerability, Pemberton relishes every moment on stage, with a physical comedy that is as compelling as his perfectly timed one-liners. Ralf Little and Emily Berrington play married couple and new parents Nick and Lisa. They embrace their membership of the Dead Funny Society but also have a fractured relationship which we discover is not all as it first seems. The emotional survival of all five characters is brought to stark reality with sharp repartee and often toxic verbal missiles.
As the only non-member of the appreciation society, Eleanor’s frustration at their antics is palpable. Parkinson portrays her with a sardonic charm and intelligence, only thinly veiling her pain. Her portrait is rooted strongly in reality, even in the sections of the play that offer more than a nod to the farces of Ray Cooney.
Johnson's play feels slightly old fashioned but that's more to do with the changes in comedy tastes in the past twenty odd years than his writing. Many of his throw way lines are utter gems, whilst when Eleanor speaks of her "tiny taps being turned off inside" Johnson piquantly reminds us just how well he can juxtapose painful drama right alongside hilarity.
A refreshing comedy that's a welcome addition to the West End. The stars cast in this play should have appreciation societies of their own.
Booking until 4th February 2017Reviewed by Andy BeePhoto credit: Alistair Muir