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Dead Funny

4 July 2013

Dead Funny

by Terry Johnson

Hampton Hill Playhouse

OHADS

Review by Mark Aspen

 

What is better than sex?   Could it be … …Benny Hill?!   This is the question the characters ask themselves in Dead Funny, OHADS’ recent production at the Hampton Hill Playhouse.

It is April 1992 at the home of Richard and his long suffering wife Eleanor. Richard is a gynaecologist who is also the President of the Dead Funny Society: and this is one of many judicious juxtapositions that give the play its punch.

 

The set, by Wes Henderson Roe, is suburban sub-chic. It is maybe a little too sub’ for the home of a successful surgeon, but then again he is the PDFS, so the decor has quirks, including skeletons, real and metaphorical.   Eleanor is playing with an anatomic model, and it soon is apparent that she cannot get the real thing.  Richard is tetchy and turned-off: even Eleanor’s sizzling sexual advances fail to flick the switch.   Joolz Connery, as the desperate voluptuary and Peter Hill as her impervious husband played the audience expertly with a prurient humour that was deliciously uncomfortable.

 

Eleanor has him down to the last of his underwear and a “taster” video for sex therapy sessions running, when Richard is rescued by the embarrassingly unexpected arrival of the Dead Funny Society: at least some of them, for the breaking news of the death of Benny Hill has caused a rift in the Society.

 

The Dead Funny Society’s raison d’être is to celebrate the television comedians of the mid-20th Century.  So, with the sudden loss of a key idol, the Society members raise their spirits with comic songs and the patter of their heroes.    Unfortunately, most of our audience were not familiar with the long episode of references and, like Eleanor, didn’t get the jokes.   Eleanor’s frustration is extended into derision for the fixation of DFS’s members with the comedians and their routines.   However, it gradually becomes clear that, for them, this obsession is a sublimation of their individual personal frustrations.   Comedy is all boys together, but, as Eleanor says, “if it is something you can’t snigger at, you’d run a mile”.

 

So, the members: Nick’s lasciviousness is a cover for his secret worries about his low sperm count.   Lisa, his wife and the only lady member of the DFS, possesses portentous psychic powers in the form of intense migraines, but do these in fact come from worries about her new baby and about other guilty secrets.    Brian, their meek neighbour, for whom the recent death of his mother has cruelly snapped the apron strings, also hides a guilty secret.

 

Then, a sudden surprise moment. When Richard is left alone with Lisa his libido miraculously returns.   For propriety, shall we say that the audience was taken aback, but Lisa more literally so. There are however plenty of red faces when Brian returns and catches them in flagrante delicto.   The flustered Lisa says, “I don’t know what came over me!”.   Brian’s pragmatic reply is, “Richard, presumably?”.

 

However, when the double whammy news breaks of the death of Frankie Howerd within 24 hours of Benny Hill, there is a coup for the Presidency of the DFS, and at the impromptu wake, all the skeletons come rattling out of the cupboard.   Brian comes out as gay and then we discover that Lisa’s baby is Richard’s.

 

There are now many things they can’t snigger at. Outcomes in real life are serious.

 

Andy Smith’s Nick was a convincing portrayal of a man struggling to come to terms with himself and his situation.   Kelly Wood gave us a Lisa whose guiltiness was palpable, but still managing to ooze sensuality through the headaches.   Steve Taylor showed Brian’s sadness under a gentle Northern friendliness, wisely understating the campness, but bringing out all the humour of the part.

 

A weakness of the play was the overuse of quotations from all those past comedians from the music-hall to the goggle-box, which required a buff’s knowledge to appreciate fully.   It sat badly between being a documentary on comedy acts and soap opera, but was rescued at the end by a tragic-comic message: don’t play with your real lives.   Director, Harry Medawar did not have an easy task, for here is a play with not only many sudden turns of plot but a complete turn of genre.    He handled the contradictions well, but was greatly helped by a cast who were clearly comfortable with each other as an ensemble.

 

The apex of the play was reached in Eleanor’s lonely and searingly painful speech, “I want a baby”, beautifully delivered by Joolz Connery.   This was arching pathos amongst those closing custard pies.

 

Mark Aspen

June 2013

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