Time for our annual few days in the capital city between Christmas and New Year to catch some shows, do some shopping and overeat because we didn’t at Christmas time – and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. No sooner had we checked into our hotel than we were out and about again, heading towards the Vaudeville Theatre to see Dead Funny for its Wednesday matinee. This fairly ground-breaking comedy appeared on the London stage way back in 1994, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t go to the theatre much due to extreme poverty. But its reputation as a savage comedy has remained in good stead during the intervening years, and I was very happy to book for its current reincarnation, so that I could see what all the fuss was about first hand.
It’s hard to underestimate just how irritating a true comedy nerd can be. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. As a teenager, I was in a crowd at school who knew every line to every Monty Python sketch, every Reginald Perrin scene, every Dad’s Army episode. As Not The Nine O’Clock News once so accurately stated, we are still ostensibly a Python-worshipping country: “when two or three are gathered together in one place then they shall perform the Parrot Sketch. It is an ex-parrot. ALL: It has ceased to be.” But comedy is a fickle idol; comedians die, and their work, eventually, for the most part, will die with them. Dead Funny is set on that particular day in April 1992 when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died. Now, you and I, gentle reader, remember them both very well, as we are all of a certain age, I fear. But what of older comics? The comedy nerds in Dead Funny also recite by heart sketches by Max Miller. Wo! That’s way out of my league. I never saw Max Miller on television – he died in 1963, for heaven’s sake. My only link to him is remembering the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s own unique impersonation of Maxie, which would surface whenever she thought she had an appreciative audience: “listen, listen, Blackpool Rock, Blackpool Rock, big as your father’s… cock your eyes over there lady!” With those kind of traumatic childhood memories, I never needed to see the original.
The oldest reference in the play is to Little Tich, whom I believe my great-aunt saw on the London stage in the 1920s. But for how long will these names be remembered? I did recognise him in the black and white footage shown on the stage before curtain-up, but I bet not many others did. I also recognised the theme tunes of Harry Worth, Comedy Playhouse and Hancock. I dwell on this because I think it’s unfortunate that the time will come when this play will be a museum piece, as Fred Scuttle and Lurcio have faded off into long distance memory. It’s a particular shame because the play deals with the very real and up to date horrors of marital deception and those unique anxieties that come about when you’re “trying for a baby”. Eleanor is desperate to have a baby but her husband Richard is desperate to put off having sex with her. The neighbours, Nick and Lisa, have a baby which only puts additional pressure on Eleanor. Their other neighbour Brian comes out as gay to no one’s surprise but his own, believing he is the reason why everyone else is at their own throats, whereas in fact he is the only blameless person in the play.
Just one thing unites Richard, Nick, Lisa and Brian – they are all comedy nerds, members of the Dead Funny club, that celebrates the life and work of comedians and comedy actors who have shuffled off this mortal coil. Eleanor sees this as just childish nonsense so is even more alienated as a result. It’s a play about relationships, about loyalty, about facing up to your responsibilities. It’s about as savage as a comedy can be whilst still making you laugh uproariously whilst choking back the ghastliness of its context. As an example, there’s a joke about how to tell if your wife has Alzheimer’s or AIDS. There’s really no coming back from that sentence, is there? The punchline genuinely shocked me (and I’m not a shockable guy). But I also laughed for ages.
It’s an absolutely superb production, with all five characters played as a masterclass of comedy acting. Katherine Parkinson is just brilliant as the woebegone Eleanor, keeping her bewildered emotions just in check as she goes through the motions of “wooing” her husband, slowly piecing together the elements that lead to possible marital infidelity, treading a fine line of near hysteria as her world comes tumbling down. Rufus Jones is excellent as the unwilling Richard, praying for the sex to be over so that he can get on with important issues like ringing up his mates and talking about Benny Hill. Kudos to Mr Jones for playing that excruciating (but hilarious) nude scene with such aplomb. Ralf Little brings a nice balance of laddishness and aggression to the character of Nick, a true comedy nerd if ever there was one; Emily Berrington delivers Lisa’s platitudes in a wonderfully quirky monotone; and Steve Pemberton’s Brian is a true gent who offers kindness and support wherever he can, so long as he can do it as Fred Scuttle.
A very funny play, that leads you up the garden path with an inventive and surprising storyline and leaves five people in a very different place from where they started. Agonising in its examination of those little things that can bring people together and can tear them apart. No wonder it won so many awards first time around. First rate!