Review: Dead Funny
Image courtesy Tower Theatre
Eleanor : Helen McGill
Richard : Ryan Williams
Lisa : Lucy Moss
Nick : James van Langenberg
Brian : Daniel Watson
There's more to this award-winning play than a few cheap laughs and the occasional naughty giggle.
It's really a brief analysis of the British sense of humour as it was twenty-five years ago when Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Morecambe and Wise were on the telly.
But it's also about the hurt suffered by a wife desperate for a child and a husband too busy still laughing at dead comedians.
As the play begins Benny Hill has died and the Dead Funny Society is meeting to celebrate his life.
But as the laughs get fewer and the voices get louder the suspicions get deeper and the relationships are stretched.
Back in 2016, The Guardian's critic Michael Billington described Terry Johnson's 1994 drama Dead Funny as a "brilliant" play.
I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but Mr Billington and I can agree on the general area where this play resides on the quality spectrum - it is right up there with the best of them.
No wonder then that Tower Theatre Company have elected to revive this well-written blend of comedy and drama for their interesting and ambitious new season (more details of which can be found here).
Terry Johnson's play has a rather strange title when viewed from the modernity of our current vantage point in the 21st century.
The phrase "dead funny" used to be in common parlance, but hardly ever seems to worm its way into conversations these days - or maybe I just talk to the wrong people or don't get out enough.
But it's a perfect title for a piece that evokes the comedy heroes of the past yet also portrays a marriage which is all but 'dead' giving rise to some painful and moving moments during the brisk passage of this engaging and well-effected production.
Suitably well-worn jokes adorn the walls of the theatre bar and there are more dotted around the programme, such as "I can still enjoy sex at 74 - I live at 75 so it's no distance" (no groans, please).
And even the announcer couldn't resist throwing in a more modern offering just before the start of the show.
Phillip Ley's deftly-designed set makes good use of the ample stage space at this address with enormous feature photos of comics of the past (Arthur Askey and Tony Hancock among them) who gaze out over the action and the audience.
The style of the landline phone, a modular stereo system and one mobile phone in evidence, suggests we're in the early years of the 1990s.
Helen McGill's Eleanor and Ryan Williams's Richard are going through a tough patch in their marriage.
They are trying to revive their sex life having consulted a counsellor, and Eleanor has acquired a fairly explicit video tape for further suggestions to aid their marital interactions.
Helen McGill (Eleanor) and Ryan Williams (Richard) - photo by Robert Piwko
Richard is also a member of the Dead Funny Society which aims to celebrate comedy heroes.
Just when Richard and Eleanor are getting down to their marital 'exercises', news arrives from Brian, another member of the society, that Benny Hill has died.
This forces the society to convene a special meeting to commemorate Mr Hill's life.
That actually sets the date of the action in 1992 - for in that year both Benny Hill and Frankie Howard died.
Director Allan Stronach must have a strong sense of déjà vu having previously directed this play back in 1998.
But if that suggests the possibility of a simple rehash of former work, think again, for this is a well-cast show that ticks along at a brisk and fluid pace, and feels fresh in spite of the fading reputations of the comics it references.
I caught one scene from the production at an early stage of rehearsals when I went along to the theatre's open day earlier this month.
The scene was the famous Morecambe and Wise 'Boom Oo Yata-Ta-Ta' sketch which now feels significantly tightened and polished thanks to the efforts of a talented and well-directed ensemble who do ample credit to Terry Johnson's cleverly written play with commendable, well-honed and watchable characterisations.
Dead Funny might leave some younger audience members a little in the dark given its focus on comics whose fame resides in former times.
But there are moving moments to savour in this richly layered drama that are ably captured in a smashing revival.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Tower Theatre
Our show listing for Dead Funny
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