Sunday, 21 April 2019

Sex, death and laughter can’t mask play’s bittersweet heart

Sex, death and laughter can’t mask play’s bittersweet heart

Dead Funny | Corn Exchange, Wallingford | Thursday, April 11

ERICA Harley’s excellent, bittersweet production of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny shows the weary Eleanor (Rebecca Lee) trying to maintain her lamentable marriage to the unfathomably hostile Richard (Johnny Cornelius).

Here’s a play that very cleverly manipulates the conventions of comedy. We have verbal sparring, witticisms, jokes, slapstick, farce — and even custard pies. But these comedic techniques form an ironic counterpoint to what is a very moving tale of disappointment and betrayal.

Richard and Eleanor don’t see eye to eye, so the mood is far from jolly as they prepare for a memorial party for the recently deceased comedian Benny Hill.

Richard, despite his wife’s evident unhappiness, is a dedicated chairman of the Dead Funny Society, a group of comedy enthusiasts in a world of their own, endlessly repeating impersonations of comedians long gone.

While Eleanor feels excluded from this group, she is the true comic. Her humour is her own, not learned by heart from comedy scripts of the past.

Rebecca Lee is strong and brilliant as the wisecracking but brittle Ellie and commanding as she takes control within her disintegrating marriage.

The party turns out to be a damp squib, followed by a fierce showdown exposing the deep marital disharmony of the two central couples.

Socially awkward Brian, played superbly by Kevin Goodfellow, offers his own revelations about his private life.

Nikki Godding is splendid as the “little bit psychic” Lisa, who claims to commune with dead comedians and is rumoured to be the secret daughter of Sid James.

Johnny Cornelius is very convincing as the irascible Richard, the obstetrician in denial about his wife’s yearning for a baby.

Joel Webster as Nick is tremendously funny, but also a vulnerable victim of secrets and lies.

As the title suggests, Dead Funny tackles two human preoccupations — humour and death. But it is also very much about sex, on several levels.

There’s the comic representation of sex through “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” innuendo and farcical states of undress. But sex is also explored more seriously as experienced in the married lives of the two couples and the solitary Brian.

The play IS a comedy, but it’s also ABOUT comedy — with the recognition that we don’t all laugh at the same things and that what is considered funny changes over time.

Dead Funny, though tinged with sadness, stands as a genuine tribute to the British comedy tradition.

The text is woven through with allusions to classic comic acts, so there are plenty of hilarious moments for the audience to enjoy.

If director Erica Harley approached this production with some trepidation, concerned about the suitability of such a raunchy text, the audience reaction will have allayed any fears — they loved it.

So, a funny adult play about funny comedians, but at its heart is the story of a disillusioned woman, —a story so ineffably sad I could have cried.

Until Saturday.

Susan Creed

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