The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Winter 2016-2017
Terry Johnson's 1995 comedy is very funny. You will laugh a lot.
But it is a comedy with a sting in its tale, and from time to time you will catch yourself in mid-laughter wondering whether you really ought to be laughing at what you're laughing at.
And that makes it a very fine comedy indeed.
It is in a couple of ways a comedy about comedy. The characters are members of a Dead Comics Fan Club, who gather to celebrate Benny Hill, Sid James, Eric Morcambe and the like, remembering and re-enacting some of their classic gags and sketches.
But it is a comedy about comedy in a deeper way, because the characters and situations among the club members resemble or duplicate some of the stereotypes of the comedies they celebrate.
And Terry Johnson cannily leads us into gradually realising this, and discovering the gap between funny gags and real life.
Some of the figures you encounter in Johnson's play are a cheating husband, a nagging wife, a sex-starved woman, an effeminate queen, an unknowing cuckold, and a dumb pneumatic blonde.
A man is caught with his trousers down, a woman's skirt is ripped off. Men make sexist jokes about women, women complain about how dense their men are.
People walk into a room at just the moment to embarrass others, people unwittingly speak double entendres because they don't know what we know, people chase each other in circles like the end of a Benny Hill show. There are even a couple of custard pies lying in wait.
Run through that list and you can think of multiple examples of each from the repertoires of Hill, James, Howerd and the rest. They are the building blocks of classic comedy since the Greeks, and they work every time.
Except perhaps when they happen to what we see as real people with the real capacity of being hurt. It's when that hits us that the laughter stutters a bit in our mouths.
Professors will tell you that the essence of comedy is not so much funniness as harmlessness – it is because we know that the man who slips on the banana peel (one of the few classic bits Johnson omits) will definitely not break his back that we can laugh at him.
But real life does contain real danger of real pain, and like the master Alan Ayckbourn, Terry Johnson reminds us of that from time to time, skilfully shaking but not breaking the comic mood.
Each of the characters in Dead Funny takes a turn being legitimately laughed at, but each also exposes some secret or open pain that makes the laughter at least occasionally uneasy.
In a uniformly excellent cast sensitively directed by the playwright himself, Katherine Parkinson as the sex-starved wife and Steve Pemberton as the ageing queen are given the most opportunity to show depth and complexity in their characters and thus confound our comic reactions the most.
Dead funny is very very funny. But it is more than just funny, and that's what makes it more than just a comedy.
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