Whether Dead Funny will work quite as well decades down the line, as the bygone comics fade from memory, is debatable, but right now this tale of collective obsession and crumbling marriages is very, very funny indeed.
Set in the early nineties, Terry Johnson’s tragi-comedy centres on a group of hero-worshipping neighbours, fixated on British comedians of music-hall tradition. Benny Hill has just died and the dwindling numbers of the Dead Funny Society prepare a wake.
From this unlikely premise springs a play written unashamedly for adults and played with verve by the five-strong cast, four of whom are Society members, with the fifth - Eleanor - played by the brilliantly brittle Elizabeth Marsh, a cynical onlooker, as her troubled life unravels. This actress has a most expressive face and her vulnerability revealed in the play’s closing moments is painful to watch.
Hilarious comedy, brilliant comic timing, the recreation of classic sketches and custard pie fights have us guffawing as the tragedy unfolds. Gynaecologist Richard (Darrell Brockis) is as indifferent to his wife Eleanor’s obsession to give birth as she is to his with dead comics.
Their friends, for whom they babysit, Lisa (Aimee Thomas) and Nick (Sam Newman) are drawn into a web of sexual impropriety and deceit, and the unlikely catalyst is the gentle neighbour Brian, a superb performance of inner pain almost concealed with levity by David Alcock.
Ian Forrest directs his cast, disconcertingly close to its audience in the theatre’s small studio space, with assurance, getting every nuance of the playwright’s masterly blending of laughter and pain, slap and tickle. We leave the theatre laughing and crying in about equal measure. Dead Funny is dead brilliant - a welcome addition to the 2005 summer season in Keswick and definitely for adults only.