Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 4 February 2017
Twenty years ago, there was a lot of it about: light comedies afloat in the West End, chronicling the disintegration of a suburban marriage while simultaneously lampooning the middle-class enthusiasm for some hobby or other.
Ayckbourn certainly had multiple goes: at cabin cruising boaters with Way Upstream and choir members in Chorus of Disapproval, but also Richard Harris skewered village cricketers in Outside Edge, Michael Frayn crushed obsessive salesmen with Make and Break, and Simon Gray savaged cloistered academics in Quartermaine’s Terms.
Now maybe we get more of that from television, so a revival of Dead Funny where the obsessed menfolk are fans of old-style comics like Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill, is refreshing. In fact, it was nearly half-way through before I remembered I’d seen the original in 1994 with Zoe Wanamaker and David Haig.
I don’t think Haig got his cock out, though, as does Rufus Jones in a bravura opening scene where he and wife Katherine Parkinson are attempting touch therapy as a part of their marital counselling.
For a thin, mostly mature, Monday night audience, the familiarity of impersonated routines by Morecambe and Wise, or Frankie Howerd were what kept them warm: but also the comforting him-off-the-telly familiarity of Steve Pemberton and maybe Ralf Little was a surreal secondary reason to enjoy it. Certainly the two women behind me said ‘ooh, isn’t he good’ so often about Steve Pemberton I was uncertain whether to slap or correct them.
Because he’s not, despite his enthusiasm for the play which in 2011 he told The Guardian was his favourite. Tasked with the easy on the surface role of a camp Northern fifty-year old mother’s boy he overdoes every aspect of his characterization until you wonder why director Terry Johnson didn’t find an actually gay actor to deliver it with more conviction. They can’t all be in Boys in the Band.
For those less impressed by sitcom standards, the revelation and the absolute delight in this piece is Parkinson as the undervalued wife whose sardonic comments and bitter analyses are what makes the play actually a sophisticated comedy. Her timing and subtlety are impressive, I’d rank her alongside Tamsin Greig for her ability to cross over between hilarious TV comedy and thoughtful stage work.
The structure collapses in the second act, when there are rival parties to ‘celebrate’ the death of Benny Hill, and the descent into farce feels like an authorial escape from tidying up the strands of the plot. But even in a basque and pelted with trifle, Parkinson carries all before her.
No, not like that, Missus. Ooh. Err.
Booking until February 4.
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