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Review: Dead Funny

Unhappy marriages unravel in comedy tropes and songs

Vaudeville Theatre

    Katherine Parkinson in Dead Funny
    Katherine Parkinson in Dead Funny

    For those still dazed, confused and downright terrified by Trump's triumph, Terry Johnson's 1994 play is the cultural equivalent of comfort food.

    Johnson - who also directs - is partly inspired by British comedy greats. The action takes place in Eleanor and Richard's suburban living room, the kind of place in which many a TV comedy has been set and watched.

    Suspended above the set are portraits of the kind of comedians honoured by Richard's fan club - Eric Morcambe, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd - which is to say funny and dead. These pictures are like comedy gods overlooking the hilarious unhappiness unfolding among the soft furnishings below. And to some extent this is Johnson's point. For many homes the bad and brilliant comedies transmitted into their living rooms are the only hope of a laugh.

    Take - not my wife, but - wife and husband, Eleanor and doctor Richard (the excellent Katherine Parkinson and Rufus Jones). She is desperate for a baby, he can't bear to be touched. So somewhat counter intuitively, following the advice of a counsellor, he lies naked on the floor while her fingers prod his body like dough.

    Nothing could illustrate the dysfunction of this relationship better than this extremely funny, horrifyingly explicit, no-sex scene. The "session" is thankfully interrupted by news of Benny Hill's death, allowing Richard to direct his energy into hosting a hastily organised tribute to the comedian with fellow geeky members of his dead comedians society. And it's against this backdrop of comedy quotes and hackneyed impressions that the truth behind Richard and Eleanor's faltering marriage is revealed.

    Cleverly, the producers have conscripted TV comedy actors to cast this excellent revival. As Eleanor, Parkinson superbly captures the anger and bewilderment of being inexplicably neglected, while fellow Humans star Emily Berrington is pitch perfect as the bimbo half of another failing marriage.

    There is more well-delivered comic timing provided by Ralph Little as her bitter husband and especially Steve Pemberton as "camp as a row of tents" Brian. But the brilliance of the play lies in its ability to use comedy tropes and archetypes to expose fathom-deep unhappiness.

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