THEATRE / Benny and the jesters: Paul Taylor on Dead Funny at the Hampstead Theatre

Terry Johnson is noted for contriving dramatic encounters between unlikely luminaries: Marilyn Monroe and Einstein in Insignificance (1982) and Freud and Salvador Dali in Hysteria, his recent, highly amusing intellectual farce. A different sort of coincidence involving celebrities provides the springboard for his new play, Dead Funny, which takes off from the fact that Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died within a few days of each other in the spring of 1992.

The play takes an uproarious look at the impact of this double blow on the Dead Comics Society, a group of devoted suburban comedy buffs (the sort who put up plaques to Hattie Jacques and can do the Morecambe & Wise 'Boom, ooh, ya-ta-ta-ta' sketch word perfect). Ending in the 'memorial do' for the late Benny that turns into both an unscheduled coming-out party and a slapstick scrimmage, Dead Funny demonstrates that, though the English pride themselves on a sense of humour, what they mean by that term is often the sort of thing you'd need a very active sense of humour to survive.

Johnson brings this out by presenting us with a strikingly dysfunctional marriage. Forty-one and going mad for want of a baby, Ellie (Zoe Wanamaker) has to cope with a husband, Richard (David Haig), gynaecologist and proud chairman of the Comics Society, who for the last 18 months has decided he doesn't want to be touched. You see what she's got (and hasn't got) on her plate in an early scene when a sex therapy session of 'sensate focusing' with her naked and very reluctant spouse is interrupted by a gay neighbour (Niall Buggy), hot with the news ('There's no easy way to say this') of Benny's demise. Not even a lovers' guide video ('Foreplay's a moveable feast,' we hear one flat-vowelled, irksomely sharing voice confide) can get him back in the mood now. He's too busy on the phone breaking the tragic tidings to other members.

The irony of this marital situation is that it's turned Ellie - regularly patronised for having no sense of humour because she refuses to partake in the 'joy of simple laughter' - into a scathing comedienne. Her withering put-downs and provocatively sick retorts, which are fired off with blistering power by Wanamaker, offend the others in principle as well as in content. 'When you have become a mother, Ellie, you will realise that some things just aren't funny,' says a pursed, sanctimonious Lisa (brilliantly played by Beatie Edney) whose on-the-side sexual favours have been the cause of Richard's 'celibacy'. You realise that, for people like Lisa, rehearsing old sketches and routines is the substitute for wit and humour, not their expression. This reviewer was reminded of the Monty Python-bores he suffered at school - the more comprehensive the recall of the material the more monumentally humourless the person by and large.

It would be misleading to suggest that Dead Funny is a companion piece to Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, doing for the response to comedy what that play does for its communication. Johnson's piece doesn't work in such a systematic way. None the less, there's a wealth of suggested truth about this topic in, say, Richard's only happy memory of his father: doing a Max Miller impression every Boxing Day. The fact that the spirit of that routine didn't spill over into the rest of life (but was just a respite from it) is the bleak joke about avid comedy-consumption that the play illustrates in high-spirited ways. It's ironic, too, that Richard can see no similarity here with his own case.

There are some deliriously funny routines, such as the one where an unwitting husband (Danny Webb) arrives at the final party impersonating Benny Hill's Mr Chow Mein character, whose Chinese accent converts every innocent remark to filth. Given that his wife has just been rogered by Richard in that very room, comments like 'he slip in his cock' ('he sleeps in his cot') have a far from calming effect. Johnson directs a crack cast in a splendid production that threatens to veer into sentimentality in the final moments, while deftly avoiding it. It may sound like some naff comedy thriller starring Donald Sinden, but Dead Funny is in fact a spot-on self-description.

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301)

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'