Theatre / Dead Funny Paul Taylor has his faith in the benefits of school gym restored

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Humour's a funny thing," declares a character in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, which now returns to the West End in splendid fettle with a completely new cast. One of the funny things about humour is that being a humour buff does not entail the inconvenience of possessing a sense of humour. Being married to a comedy devotee does. "If I had no sense of humour," says Ellie to her husband, Richard, a consultant obstetrician and branch chairman of a group dedicated to honouring defunct comedians, "I would have hanged myself from the banisters on our third wedding anniversary, which, in case you've forgotten, we celebrated with a trip to Little and Large."

An exhilarating cross between the broad farce of a Ray Cooney and the painful marital dissections of an Albee or an Ayckbourn, Johnson's play is set in the spring of 1992, when, much to the grief of the Dead Funny Society, Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd expired within days of each other. For Richard, though, organising and hosting a wake for Benny provides a timely excuse to avoid looking at something mortally sick which is rather closer to home: his marriage. Aged 41 and tormented with frustration at still being childless, Ellie can't get a rise out of Richard either in bed or in conversation, though his dislike of being touched turns out not to apply to all women. Firing off blistering put-downs and provocatively sick retorts, the supposedly humourless Ellie uses wit as a goad to try to force people to see what is in front of them, whereas for Richard, who retreats into Hancock impressions and Eric Morecambe routines, the great tradition of English humour, with its fourth-form smut, daft voices and so on, acts as a licence for arrested development.

Measuring up to the original cast is a ticklishly literal business at moments for the actors playing this pair, since one of them has to have the eyes of the entire audience glued to his penis during a spot of hilarious "sensate-focusing", and in the acrimonious custard-pie fight that erupts during the Benny Hill-costumed wake, the other is revealed to be wearing basque and suspenders like one of Benny's tarts. Belinda Lang looks so good in this outfit that you don't feel sufficiently embarrassed here that Ellie has been driven to this to rouse hubby's passion.

Kevin McNally's Richard is excellent, showing you a weak coward who masks from himself the fact that he has turned into a grown-up shit through the schoolboy naughtiness of his favourite comedians. Playing the middle- aged mummy's boy neighbour who outs himself during the party, Sam Kelly offers a lovely line in camp bustling. And Rebecca Lacey captures just the right note of droning wiseacredom in her depiction of Lisa, Richard's bit on the side. Her somersault over the settee, knickers round ankles, when caught having a quick knee-trembler with him in the sitting-room, restores your faith in the benefits of compulsory school gym.

Savoy Theatre, Strand, London WC2. Booking: 0171-836 8888