Cries & Whispers

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TICKETS for Terry Johnson's new play Dead Funny - a black comedy about the British sense of humour that is, well, dead funny - are sought-after things. So I was pretty pleased when I got hold of a pair last week, and walked in to the Hampstead Theatre with high hopes. Two hours later I left feeling a touch dismayed. What happened in between? The play itself had more than lived up to its reviews: virtuoso comic writing with performances to match. But the audience was a terrible disappointment. Not for the first time, I found myself surrounded by people whose slavery to political correctness apparently stopped them either understanding or enjoying what was going on in front of them - in this case, a biting use of irony. Dead Funny uses a group of people who are all members of a comedy appreciation society to explore the nature of British humour and the fears that inspire and fuel it: sexual inadequacy, marital breakdown, racism, homophobia. Thus when one of the characters starts doing an impersonation of Benny Hill's speech-impedimented Chinese waiter ('Did he slip in his cock?' for 'Did he sleep in his cot?') he doesn't realise he's describing what his best friend did to his wife a few minutes earlier. Later, when he realises she's been unfaithful, he can only respond by flinging custard pies in a fit of despairing anger. Serious stuff, deliberately presented as the kind of comedy that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. But at moments like this, large parts of the audience refused even to crack a smile. Instead of watching with their brains, they watched with their knees, which duly jerked - 'Chinaman - racist' and 'slapstick - too violent'. Up went the barriers, and out of the window went any chance of properly appreciating the play's bittersweet flavour. As Johnson says at the very end, while an abandoned, childless wife and a bereaved, middle-aged gay man sit and share their loneliness on the sofa, 'Ah well, you've got to see the funny side, haven't you?'

AN ODD thing has been happening lately in the pop singles chart. No sooner does a song arrive in the Top 40 than it starts its descent, often hurtling into free-fall and vanishing by the following week. The chart of 19 February had seven new entries between numbers 21 and 40, apparently poised for higher things, but none managed to climb into the Top 20. The obvious explanation behind the mystery of the 'one-week single' is that the chart has been reorganised by its new compilers, Millward Brown, who took over from Gallup earlier this year. But perhaps the switch just exaggerates a trend: the number of singles appearing in the chart has risen enormously over the last five years, to around 1,000 a year. This means there are now more hits - smaller ones - but that makes the chart less fun. One of the great pleasures of the Top 40 was following the progress of a song by a favourite band, from just outside the 40, through the 30s and 20s, up to the Top 10 and back again. In the Seventies and Eighties it wasn't unusual for the process to take three months - T Rex's 'Hot Love' spent 17 weeks in the chart in 1971 and a decade later Adam and the Ants managed 15 weeks with 'Stand and Deliver'. But now this satisfying, hump-shaped sort of progress has been rudely jolted by sudden entry and sudden death. Bar the odd stayer by the likes of Bryan Adams or Whitney Houston, that familiar Radio 1 question 'Will they still be there next week?' may have become a thing of the past.