Terry Johnson's tremendously clever Dead Funny plays hilariously with the essential relationship between farce and sex. To see a man without his trousers is to see not only masculine dignity but also sex itself ridiculed. That inconstant, slippery force is tamed and replaced by the more reliable pleasure of laughter. Better than sex, as we like to say. But there's a cut to black comedy, for the sexual longing can never be replaced and its denial, even by humour, will cause pain.
Until the aforesaid rut, we have believed Richard to have lost all sexual desire. "This is my body and it doesn't want to be touched," he tells his wife. He has already lost his trousers in the cause of marriage guidance - "is this affection or instruction?" - with only his tenacious superciliousness saving his humiliation. Indeed, in this sharp satire of sex therapy it is fascinatingly hard whether to place one's sympathy with him or with Ellie's anguished frustration, seasoned as it is with put-downs which, in Janice McKenzie's wonderful swoop-and-kill rasp, come as sudden and fierce as chilli pepper.
Richard's own replacement therapy lies in his enthusiastic chairmanship of the Dead Funny Society, a group of enthusiasts devoted to Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Hancock et al - whose anoraks, says Ellie, fill the hall to suffocation. Richard and the others - mid-life bachelor Brian, and husband and wife Nick (Nigel Hoyle) and Lisa (Barbara Dryhurst) - perform compulsive take-offs of their heroes, including a full version of a Morecambe and Wise sketch, which dance between the side-splitting and the excruciating. The choreography of these scenes, and the orgasmic custard-pie sequence, is the top-dressing of the designer/director Kevin Knight's excellent work.
But all the society members, it turns out, are as sexually tormented as Richard and Ellie. Brian - a beautifully judged, moving and utterly unsentimental performance from Paul McCleary - comes out as gay and buys a ticket to Amsterdam, and the infertile Nick knows their new child cannot be his. No funny nose and specs can disguise these travails. Johnson never loses touch with the laughter but the thread becomes dark, especially as we contemplate Richard, whose distraction, in Michael Gould's masterly performance, we see, is a frightening numbness, too deep for him to realise his own pain.
Dead Funny is a play of superb craftsmanship, wit and feeling. This hugely enjoyable production - at least the equal of the West End's - serves it excellently. Better than sex? Maybe not, but TV? No contest.
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