COMEDY AS PAIN, PAIN AS COMEDY
A late catch-up, this: I was away on press night, so it seemed a good wheeze to dive into the Vaudeville for a matinee on Trumpageddon day. And here indeed both British and Americans could be found, laughing their heads off andko wisely drowning the global angst. Terry Johnson’s revival of his classic 1994 comedy combines, with immense art and heart, real sexual and marital misery with a subtle examination of male fan-boy hobbyism in all its strange, sweet, absurd, retarded innocence. It makes for one of the funniest, saddest, most humane plays of the season. Just what the politically-bruised soul needs.
Eleanor – Katherine Parkinson brilliant in her pin-sharp, exasperated comic sourness – is thwarted by the physical drought of her marriage ,and her longing for a child. When her obstetrician husband Richard (Rufus Jones) gets home from the pub after a long day removing wombs (very symbolic), she puts him through the drearily formulaic touching exercises laid down by their sexology counsellor. Indeed on the way through Covent Garden a fellow-critic heading the other way for lunch had hailed me with the startling greeting “You’ll love it, you get to see a middle-aged penis”. And indeed we do: Rufus Jones heroically, grumpily nude while the inept and fed-up Eleanor attempts erotic massage and the doorbell promptly rings. Good gag there.
That doorbell brings news: for though their grim marriage is central, equally central, beautifully woven in to the themes of sex, paternity, frustration and misunderstanding , is Richard’s chairmanship of the Dead Funny society. It worships bygone comedians and is summoned to hold one of its anorakish meetings by the sudden death of Benny Hill. That both old-fashioned comedy and real pain are fuelled by precisely the same things – sex, paternity, frustration and misunderstanding – is the central paradox in the tightly woven play. Fellow club members are Nick (a bit of a failure in life) , his wife Lisa, a new mother; and Brian, middle-aged and single ( for a good reason) who gallantly soldiers on alone in his late Mum’s flat and is a mainstay of the club. It’s a delicately funny, heart-rending performance by Steve Pemberton. But the club is splitting up, rather in the manner of the Labour Party, which adds another poignant edge to the eventual memorial evening with the five of them.
It is beautifully paced: the excruciating series of tribute costumes and imitations – from Tommy Cooper to Morecambe and Wise , Hancock, Howerd and the appalling Benny himself – are artfully used to further the unravelling emotional plot of their real lives, and provoke a cataclysmic (and satisfyingly custard-fuelled) battle and resolution. Parkinson’s Eleanor is a powerful outsider, desperate in her own plight and clear-eyed about the men’s weakness (“If it’s not something you can snigger about, you run a mile”). In the middle of the Oooh-ah-missus, titter-ye-not nerdiness of the men she bitterly tells one formal joke – just the one – so brilliantly tasteless that the whole house erupts. Jones’ Richard is heartbreaking in his emotional incompetence; Ralf Little’s Nick finally rather heroic, his wife (Emily Berrington) ) a nicely flaky poseuse . Gloriously funny as it is, the play tells more truth and holds more credible feeling than many a darker one. Brilliant.
box office 0330 333 4814 to 4 Feb. http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
rating five. Because intelligent comedy counts.