Dead Funny

Wed 2nd – Sat 5th November 2011

reviews

Sophie Strang

at 23:47 on 2nd Nov 2011

2agrees

0disagrees

The title of Terry Johnson's play is presumptuous; Dead Funny promises great things. I was doubtful. But any doubts encouraged by Johnson's audacious titling will be quickly dismissed as soon as the play begins. Thank goodness. Johnson's script, brought to life by Illyria productions really is funny. It tells the story of five middle-aged and delightfully middle-class comedy enthusiasts struggling with a crumbling marriage which continually threatens to disrupt the Dead Funny Society's meeting to commemorate the life Benny Hill.

The opening scene is one of the best in the play, reaching its high point when Eleanor (Charlotte Mulliner) on the advice of the couple's marriage counsellor, forces her husband Richard (Jordan Waller) to accept a massage. The audience’s horror (or disguised delight) at seeing these actors undressed is manipulated for great comic effect by the actors display of awkwardness on stage, culminating with Richard's cry, “Will you just touch it!” which was met with a considerable laugh from the audience. The couple, in whose living -room the play is set, are without doubt the stars of the show and are both display polished and persuasive acting. Jordan Waller in particular displayed both brilliant comic timing and emotional intensity. Charlotte Mulliner could have made more of the comic potential of her character's cynical outlook and on occasion, some really witty lines were sadly lost to a either lack of emphasis or just the hint of a smile in Mulliner's eye. As a secondary character, Brian is the adorable misfit who needs the Dead Funny Society more than anybody else. Lloyd Houston who plays him speaks just fast enough (very fast) and is just camp enough (very camp) for the role. Brian is frequently used to provide comic relief from the more serious issues in the play and although he is really more caricature than character, Houston fits the role to a tee and occasionally allows glimpses of Brian's depth of feeling.

The second couple in the play feature more prominently in the second half than in the first. I preferred Act I. This is not wholly the fault of the actors playing Lisa and Nick, both did justice to some really funny scripting. Watch out for Lisa's (Lauren Hyett) facial expressions, they can be truly hilarious. There is however, a discrepancy between the first and second act. In a play that clearly aims to blend comedy and pain throughout, it is a shame that the second half is quite so painful when the first half was quite so funny. A slight toning down of the melodramatic moments in the second half would have prevented the overshadowing of its comedic power. Additionally, one might like less of the Benny Hill impersonations, which in my opinion went on a bit long at the start of the act- but that may simply be a question of taste. Overall though, any play with nudity, violence and simulated sex on stage will really struggle to disappoint its audiences and this is an extremely polished performance of a very well-written script.

agree
disagree

Rosalind Stone

at 04:39 on 3rd Nov 2011

2agrees

2disagrees

Behind the shaving foam custard pies, and the dressing up clothes from charity shops that have evidently been itching to come out of the back of the wardrobe since the society’s last meeting, Dead Funny reeks of sadness. It is a testament to the sensitivity with which all five cast members approach their easily dislikeable and one-dimensional characters that this sadness forms both sharp pinpricks and a pervading malaise, while Wicks' production manages simultaneously (and so consistently that it’s almost unbelievable), to be, genuinely, dead funny.

With its cornices and cream walls, the Simpkins Lee performance space lends itself to transformation into someone’s living room. With its symmetrical vases of fake-looking lilies, comfy leather chairs, cluttered dining table and over-populated drinks stand, the set evokes the potential banality of Eleanor (Charlotte Mulliner) and Richard’s (Jordan Waller) middle-class, married life. On being invaded by the Dead Funny society, of which each member is embroiled in separate midlife crises but unanimously, determinedly, “looking on the bright side”, it functions as an apt canvas for demonstrating the awful futility of their congregating.

The attempts made by Richard with schoolteacher Nick (Will Hatcher), his wife Lisa (Lauren Hyett) and entrancingly camp postman Brian (Lloyd Houston) to resurrect passé sketches by deceased comedians reach a brilliant, sadistic zenith of awkward viewing. As Mulliner despairingly glugs wine from the periphery, her tortured eyes convey as much empathy for the audience as her portrayal of Eleanor inspires. Resigned to her role as the only character “without a sense of humour” she alternates between a wry delivery of some of the most hilarious lines, and a teary-eyed, naturalistic display of the searing loneliness which is never far from her character’s surface. She gives perhaps the most seamlessly modulated performance; while Waller, Houston and Hatcher all participate convincingly in intense demonstrations of anxiety, anger and helplessness, their transitions from the farcical to the serious are occasionally evident, and marked by a sense of relief on a shift back into a section in which they can (and do) excel comically.

Waller triumphs in Richard’s petulance and his hyperbolic disengagement when enduring Eleanor’s single-handed attempts to propel the couple through sex therapy, which turns out to be perhaps the most bitingly twisted feature of the plot. (And he looks great in Richard’s horrendous, speedo-esque underwear). When they are juxtaposed with Hatcher’s Nick and Hyett’s maddening, baby-voiced Lisa, who are both masters of intense strain and wandering eyes, it becomes difficult to determine which pair works together best or portrays the most catastrophic couple. As the play draws to its climax and Houston watches, adorably aghast, from the safety of his turtleneck, lives are damaged irreparably as comic conventions are transgressed. While the trifles and custard pies can be said to hit the right faces, this production achieves the creation of an outside world rather than an offstage, in which laughter can only offer a brief panacea to the impossibility of closure, or of happy endings.

As Brian, somewhat facetiously, concludes “You’ve got to see the funny side...” And I’d recommend you do so this week.

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