Terry Johnson’s play has its funny moments but can tend to feel as though it isn’t sure whether it is a comedy or a tragedy.
The 1994 play is a comedy which pinpoints the moment when one couple realise that their marriage is at an end because their needs and wants are completely different, yet it feels as though it is trying too hard to be likeable.
Eleanor really wants a baby, but her husband Richard isn’t so keen – preferring to concentrate on being chairman of the Dead Funny Society. But when Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill die in the same week, the society also made up of Nick Brian and Lisa meet to celebrate their comedy heroes lives – yet it turns into an evening where unpleasant truths are revealed.
Also directed by Terry Johnson, the production promises much fun while lurking underneath hidden insecurities come to surface, yet what you are left with is a play that indulges in nostalgia but not enough focus on the problems between the central characters of Eleanor and Richard.
Yet when it does focus and become slightly more intense, particularly when Nick confides in Richard his increasing frustration of being stuck in a marriage with Lisa or when Brian confesses to his friends that he is gay, there are makings of a strong play within.
But, at the same time it feels when it comes to the bigger issue at hand with regards to what happens when a marriage breaks down it is lacking in depth and detail – with virtually very little detail of how Eleanor and Richard have reached this point that it is difficult to sympathise with them.
The constant references to comedians such Ernie and Eric and Max Miller etc are fantastically nostalgic – particularly during the scene in which the society impersonate these great comedians which is a real highlight – but also seems to trivialise what the play is about which is frustrating to watch.
But there is a great cast to try and lift the play up. Steve Pemberton as Brian is hilarious, charming and downright likeable, particularly when he tells his friends that he is gay and generates a lot of sympathy from the audience. Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor also delivers a brilliant performance, her desperation and frustration with her husband’s attitude brilliantly culminating in her dropping a pudding all over his head – but yet the script lets her down by not focusing on her story more.
Ralf Little is razor sharp as Nick – who while comes across as quite arrogant in the way he treats his wife Lisa is actually surprisingly more vulnerable and eventually in a sense more noble and self-sacrificing than the audience originally thought.
Overall, it is the play itself that is more of a problem than the production, which also features one of the best food fights I have seen on stage, that is lifted by the cast’s great energy and commitment. It is a bit like marmite – some will enjoy it for its nostalgic feel but others might struggle with its attempts to turn tragedy into comedy and vice versa.
Dead Funny continues to play at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 4th February 2017. To book tickets visit: Ticketmaster.co.uk, Discount Theatre.com, Last Minute.com, Theatre Tickets Direct.co.uk, Love Theatre.com, Theatre People.com, UK Tickets.co.uk.