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Dead Funny review at the Vaudeville Theatre – ‘brutal stuff’

A scene from Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Comedies were once a staple of the West End, but the current Society of London Theatre guide currently lists just four, three of them from The Play That Goes Wrong genre of dizzying theatrical mishaps. So it is an undoubted pleasure that the fourth title is a revival of Terry Johnson’s 1994 play about a group of television comedy fans who meet to celebrate their idols.

Just as the 1989 film Dead Poets Society revolved around a teacher who inspired his students with old poetry, this play could be dubbed the Dead Comics Society – its characters mourn the passing first of Frankie Howerd, then Benny Hill on consecutive days in April 1992.

This is both a seriously funny and comically sad play about the healing, redemptive powers of comedy, both to unite people and give them a shared language of catchphrases, but also to smudge the bigger chasms between them. Those themes remain universal, but it is also a slightly curious fact of Dead Funny that, though it was set in the contemporary world of its premiere, it has, just 22 years later, become a period piece, and that’s not just down to the novelty value of a clunky early mobile phone as a prop.

Rather, it is because most of the other comic heroes it references have also now passed on. Early on in the play, Richard – the 37-year-old consultant obstetrician who runs the comic appreciation society – is happy that he’s managed to secure tickets for Norman Wisdom’s appearance at Wimbledon Theatre on a forthcoming weekend. It’s not an enthusiasm shared by his spiky, disappointed wife Eleanor who, it turns out, yearns to have a child but finds that Richard flinches when she even touches him, let alone making any attempts towards greater intimacy.

As a portrait of a failing marriage, it’s pretty brutal stuff. Katherine Parkinson and Rufus Jones play it with a deadly conviction that is painful to watch, in the vein of period Alan Ayckbourn, to which the writing owes a debt. But Johnson loads it with a raft of deeply affectionate comic impersonations, a tender portrait of friendship and eventually outright pie-in-the-face farce which keeps it buoyant.

Under the writer’s own direction, the production skilfully walks a fine line between hilarity and emotional exposure. There are also poignant, pertinent performances from Ralf Little and Emily Berrington as a couple struggling with the challenges of a new baby, and an especially moving portrayal by Steve Pemberton of a lonely single man with a secret of his own.

That also feels strangely dated, but it amplifies the discomfort the audience feels at the revelations that are made in turn.

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An affectionate and amusing yet disquieting 1990s comedy that still packs a powerful punch