One of the saddest university societies in my student days was the ROMPS: Reciters Of Monty Python Sketches. The same acrid air of nebbish-hood hangs over the central group of comedy "anoraks" in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, as they meet to recreate supposed gems such as Morecambe and Wise's "Boom, ooh, ya-ta-ta-ta" routine and impersonate Benny Hill's character Fred Scuttle.
One such meeting – during the week in 1992 which saw the deaths of both Hill and Frankie Howerd – is interwoven by Johnson with a series of hetero- and homosexual revelations between the five characters. He is implicitly making the point that it was a number not just of the great performers, but also of their fans, who used (and still use) comedy as a familiar, circumscribed and therefore safe surrogate for the risks inherent in allowing oneself to be alive sexually; that the coronaries which dispatched so many comics were instances of one kind of pressure on the heart standing in for another.
There's as much intelligence and humanity in this as in the other Johnson plays revived by director Loveday Ingram in Chichester's Minerva in recent years, Insignificance in 1999 and Hysteria in 2000. But there's less formal exuberance, and it's (rightly) not Ingram's way to pretend otherwise. Hysteria, premièred almost simultaneously, was preferred by the critics on first showing, but it was Dead Funny that was the big mainstream success. It's easy to see why: where the other play has Freudian profundities and surrealistic fireworks, this has conventional farce and slapstick, right down to custard-pie and soda-siphon moments.
As with so many recent farces, though, even a mere decade on, it already seems something of a period piece. One character disapprovingly cites a symbol of the fiery radicalism of new comedy in opposition to the old masters: it's Ben Elton. How quaint that seems now, in a comic culture where the landmarks are the likes of The League Of Gentlemen and Chris Morris.
The performances, too, although almost uniformly strong and skilful, need at first to wait for the action to grow to a size that matches the playing style. Much of the first act seems pitched that bit too big for the Minerva's studio space, genre notwithstanding. The affable Adrian Lukis is cast nicely against type as the slightly too chilly protagonist Richard, and Chris Larner (best known for writing the ridiculous songs for a number of The Right Size's shows) turns in a more than decent performance as cuckolded best friend Nick.
And the production elicits all the right laughs and the thoughtful "ah"s, in a Chichester sort of way. But that rather patronising qualification wasn't needed for Ingram's previous Minerva Johnsons. It would be interesting to see her handle the hybrid tone of the same author's Sid James/Barbara Windsor love story Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick (a.k.a. Cor Blimey!), which one hopes has already been pencilled in for a coming season.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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