Dead Funny, Vaudeville Theatre, London — evaluation

From left, Steve Pemberton, Emily Berrington and Rufus Jones in ‘Dead Funny’ © Alastair Muir

I have identified for some years that Terry Johnson is a talented director, particularly of dark and clever comedies. Even so, I had never ever just before realised very how precise and gifted he is. In his revival of Dead Funny he can, and frequently does, turn the course of events or the mood of a scene correct around, pivoting on the merest inflection or the most fleeting pause.

It assists, of course, that he knows the play in such detail. Right after all, he wrote it, in 1994, and set it a couple of years earlier in the handful of days when comedians Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd both died. Fan group the Dead Funny Society hold a memorial party for Hill, only to find that the derisory turnout of 5 consists of two couples whose marriages are tested to the extremely point of destruction and a middle-aged man whose coming-out declaration in the midst of almost everything else seems utterly insignificant. The play enjoyed huge good results at the time but has been neglected as regards revivals. In Johnson’s own production, although, it stands revealed as each bit as enjoyable-however-discomfiting as the most mordant mid-period Alan Ayckbourn operate.

He also has a doozy of a cast. Katherine Parkinson is one of Britain’s finest purveyors of deadpan sarcasm. As the comedy dissident Ellie, she drips corrosive, frustrated dissatisfaction from every pore, and the one formal joke she tells is in such negative taste yet so completely delivered that we blush for shame even as we hoot. Rufus Jones as her husband, who requires Norman Wisdom more seriously than his marriage, is nearly as accomplished as Parkinson, despite the fact that his long suit is a sort of banal bombast. Ralf Little’s speciality is being amiably half a step behind, and Emily Berrington merely demands to take herself a small too seriously as the evening disintegrates around her, culminating in an practically totally unforced food fight total with classic custard-pie routines. Steve Pemberton is something but a fifth wheel, starting in major-crucial camp then steadily delving deeper as the tension mounts.

Johnson orchestrates matters into an evening of exquisitely agonising, embarrassing beauty. Thank heaven such a playwright and such a director found every single other, conveniently in the very same physique.

To February four, nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/dead_funny

Section: Arts