Dead Funny, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The society at the centre of Terry Johnson's comedy - meeting to mark the death of Benny Hill in 1992 - is not one in which any sane living person would want to be seen dead. In fact, the antics of the Dead Funny Society, paying homage to dated strains of English humour, are now very much something of a period piece, scarcely tickling the contemporary funny bone.

However, if the vulgar sight gags of predictable custard pie and trifle slapstick, mixed in with a well-aimed soda syphon, and the farcical carrying-on of a group of anoraks reliving famous comedy routines interwoven with darker sexual revelations are your idea of festive fun, then you'll love Dead Funny.

Just home from a busy day in the theatre, consultant obstetrician Richard, a jaded, unhappy husband, is forced into humiliating sexual therapy by his grimly determined older wife. Her biological clock is driving her into taking stringent measures to arouse her apparently impotent husband. I suspect most of the audience cringed at the excruciating sight of a man bullied into stripping naked and being untenderly fingered within the first 10 minutes of appearing on stage. After all, we hardly even know him.

Lysette Anthony's stark portrayal of Eleanor, the desperate housewife yearning for her husband's touch, attracts less compassion than it might, her chilly, stand-offish manner and eternally pursed lips making you long to shake her. Whatever spark first brought this unlikely couple together has surely long since died.

On Simon Higlett's versatile set, their lounge features a medic's toy box of a skeleton and a female torso whose heart, at first reported missing, is later found (surprise) broken. Richard, played by Nicolas Tennant, has followed in his father's footsteps, churning out hysterectomies. He finds light relief as chairman of the Dead Funny Society. Eleanor is not amused.

Richard's three collaborators provide staunch support as the appreciation society convened to pay tribute to Hill. Enacting sketches they have loved, the four have a ball at the expense of all the usual suspects, especially women. Morecambe and Wise's "Boom, ooh, ya-ta-ta-ta" routine and Benny Hill's Fred Scuttle impersonations, Frankie Howerd cracks, and references to Norman Wisdom, Bella Emberg and Tommy Cooper are glued on to the fabric of a play in which the sexual implications and innuendos are neither remotely sexy nor subtle.

The performances are uniformly good, especially Derek Hutchinson as Brian, the gay man trapped in his own appreciation society for his recently dead mother. With his mild attitude and Yorkshire accent, Hutchinson's sharply defined portrayal has all the hallmarks of a character created by or, indeed, for Alan Bennett. Natalie Walter is delightful as the ditzy blonde Lisa, more concerned with her new baby and her psychic "headaches" than with her cuckold husband Nick.

Matthew Lloyd's production, flitting between situations of sheer absurdity and bitter exchanges, draws guffaws, while making the most of what dramatic tension there is in the material. When the looped tape of real-life comedians, playing before the show and during the interval, elicits more genuinely spontaneous chuckles than Johnson's lines, and when one of the biggest laughs of the night is for a mobile phone the size of a blackboard duster, Lloyd must wonder if Dead Funny isn't simply dead rather than funny.

To 21 January (0113-213 7700)

Comments