Review – Jack Whitehall at Large, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th January 2017

jwalFirst show of the new year – can I get an Amen? Amen! Thank you. And it was the first night for Jack Whitehall’s new At Large national tour. He’s yet another in the long line of comedians that we’ve heard about but haven’t really watched much on TV – the occasional appearance here and there, perhaps; we started watching his sitcom about being a teacher but got bored (sorry). We nevertheless booked to see him because – well, we only live down the road and he’s a big name, you never know, he might be good.

lloyd-griffithsBut first, a support act in the form of Lloyd Griffith. He’s an unusual chap. Very likeable – one of his first exchanges with the audience was a challenge for us to guess his other job. I would have said lorry driver. Someone actually said undertaker. But no, he’s a singer – and to prove it gives us an unexpectedly enjoyable aria before going onto the next joke. He’s got a couple of superb gifts, both of which are the basis for this warmup act. Firstly, he is ace at recreating the sound of sticky tape being rolled and torn off a reel. All types; all strengths. Secondly, he can give you a fact about every single cathedral in England. Whilst we didn’t have an impartial expert on hand to judge the accuracy of these fun facts, I had no reason to doubt him. So plenty of interaction with the audience as we challenge him on the more obscure cathedrals and forms of sticky tape. In many respects, a really odd act. But it worked!

jw1Back to Jack Whitehall then. You probably already know his persona – posh boy, cheeky chappie, hugely self-deprecating. He treads a very fine line between being (very) slightly camp and oozing wealth and privilege – and he meets where the two cross over. He plays up to that image immaculately – talking about his friend Dave, whom he later clarifies is the Earl of Daventry, for example. He’s a perfect example of how an excellent education gives you enormous self-confidence. He can walk with kings yet keep the common touch, as Kipling almost said. For one thing, he can do a superb ruffian down the pub accent, much better than most ruffians down the pub can do posh. If you see the show, you’ll just love his interpretation of Danny Dyer reporting back from Syria.

jw2But the key to his charm is the self-deprecation. Almost every routine will have somewhere at its heart something to do with a frailty on his part that means that life doesn’t go to plan. He may or may not blame himself, but we’ll find it funny nonetheless. There’s a sequence about his recent time spent cracking America, until he comes home with the continent still considerably uncracked. He’s merciless with the way he teases himself for his appalling luck and disastrous decisions. Because of that self-deprecation, his poshness never comes over as pompous – even when he’s dissing any other purveyor of comestibles other than Waitrose, it’s funny and not snobbery. It’s a skill, and he’s got it off to a fine art.

jw3Mr Whitehall makes sure you’re not short-changed with this tour. Especially after the interval, he jam-packs it with more material than you can shake a stick at. And – as an additional benefit – absolutely everything hit home, there wasn’t one flabby or unthought-through sequence. Amongst the subjects he considers are his new job as the voice of Asda (how ironic), Prince Harry at the Royal Variety Performance, alcohol free beer in Glasgow, stag dos and Colin (there’s always someone called Colin at a stag do), his professional rivalry with Robert Pattinson, the difference between wine consumption in the US and the UK, and what happens when you’re sat on a plane next to a man with an erection.

jw4We both enjoyed the evening very much – perhaps Mr Whitehall tapped into my comic psyche slightly more closely than Mrs Chrisparkle’s, but, after all, I did go to a good school too. As an entr’acte between Lloyd Griffith leaving and Mr W coming on stage, they play an introductory video, showing the trials and tribulations of our good host from waking up in a strange bed next to a strange man to realising he’s miles away from the theatre and working out how he’s going to get there in time. I thought it was pleasantly amusing. Mrs C thought it was a waste of time. We agreed to disagree. But don’t let that stop you booking for his tour, which carries on throughout January and February – it’s excellent and you’ll love it. That’s a promise.

P. S. First night glamour in the stalls bar at the Derngate, as Mr and Mrs Whitehall (Senior) were accompanied by Northamptonshire’s own Mr Nick Hewer. Social media was buzzing. We sat further away because We Know Our Place.

Review – Cinderella, London Palladium, 30th December 2016

CinderellaMy first ever visit to a London theatre was to the Palladium for a pantomime back in January 1969 when I was a very small wee urchin. It was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Jimmy Tarbuck and Arthur Askey and I adored it. I don’t know why I missed out in 1970, but in February 1971 I saw my next Palladium panto, Aladdin, starring Cilla Black. In January 1972, just three days after my father died, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle still took me to see Clodagh Rodgers and Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella. And after that – for me – no more Palladium pantos! I didn’t see another panto until I was 19 (Mother Goose at Oxford, with John Inman). And after that, nada, until we took our nieces to see Cinderella in Malvern in 2006. But the London Palladium panto tradition was a very special thing, with its heyday being the late 40s, 50s and 60s. The last time one was staged was back in 1987 with – yet again – Cinderella. Now it’s 29 years later, and look what’s back!

London PalladiumHaving loved my first three Palladium pantos, an irresistible force drew me to booking for this comeback show. And what a production it is! The old phrase “no expense spared” is often used, but this time it’s for real. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, everything about it exudes riches and exquisiteness. They’ve got the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technology to make the pumpkin carriage fly through the air, and boy do they use it. With a nod to shows of the past, the panto includes the Sunday Night at the London Palladium theme, the famous revolving stage, and there’s even a brief homage to the Tiller Girls. The boys and girls of the ensemble and the supporting character parts give their all to make it a really entertaining night; and to top it all there is a star-studded lead cast that has to be seen to be believed. No surprise that it’s been a commercial success and that they’re already booking for Dick Whittington next December.

lee-mead-and-natasha-j-barnesWe saw a Friday evening performance – and you might expect that show to be a little more adult in its targeting than some of the matinees. To be fair, there were hardly any children there. That’s right, the Palladium, a theatre that seats over 2,400 people, showing a pantomime, and there was just a handful of kids. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had thought it would be an irreverent night full of theatrical fun, perfect for the break between Christmas and New Year, and no kids. I reckon over 2,300 other adults felt precisely the same. However, that was probably just as well, as the vast majority of the material was completely unsuitable for children. Cleverly unsuitable, for certain, in that it would go straight over their heads (possibly causing them to be a little bored occasionally) but unsuitable nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint, but merely an observation – I loved it!

julian-clary-and-a-big-clockThe last time we saw Julian Clary do his stand-up routine I questioned whether or not his act was starting to become a trifle anachronistic, poking fun at effeminacy – especially his own – in this day and age. There’s no doubt he does it brilliantly and it brings the house down, but how 2017 is it? If the jury was out on that one, it’s just come back in, because in Cinderella Mr Clary’s performance as Dandini is an absolute triumph of camp filth. Scene after scene is crammed with double (and treble!) entendres, from his opening song about exploring Soho (to the tune of Downtown), to discussions about his muff and his ring, and being pulled off. Those few children who have sneaked in are totally bemused at why the adults are laughing so much. Actually, there was one teenager that Mrs C noticed, who understood all the dirty jokes but was having to suppress her laughter in case her mother caught her. Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth.

paul-ogradyTrumping Mr Clary (although not in the American Presidential sense) – or not, you decide – is Paul O’Grady in the rarely seen role of Baroness Hardup, channelling his inner Cruella de Vil from the moment he gets out of his limo to the epiphany he has on the floor. I’d not seen him on stage before and he’s a right handful, I can tell you. As soon as an infant in the audience made a mewling noise he was straight on it: “Calpol that child, before I come down there and do it for you!” Between the two of them, Messrs Clary and O’Grady wiped the floor with the audience in a nice cop/nasty cop sort of way. They are hysterically funny. It must have been a complete toss-up (the innuendo is catching) as to which of them got top billing. I wonder who it was who told Mr Clary it wasn’t him.

paul-zerdin-sam-and-natasha-j-barnesMore for the kids – although with plenty of adult twists – Paul Zerdin is a terrific Buttons, with his ventriloquist dummy sidekick Sam, dressed as a mini-Buttons. Sam has a mind of his own and can’t be trusted with anyone, as he both chats up and derides members of the audience, including the sexually-laden line “once puppet, never look back”. His is a brilliant act – no wonder he won America’s Got Talent in 2015. At one stage, he selects a couple from the audience to do the same masked vent act that we saw Nina Conti do in Edinburgh in 2015. Poor Richard and Angela – what great sports they were.

julian-clary-and-nigel-haversAmanda Holden is a very charming Fairy Godmother, with a lot of X-Factor/Cowell/talent show material that slips out at regular intervals. I rather enjoyed her performance because she doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t – and when it came to the (highly enjoyable) If I Were Not in Pantomime routine, she messed it up a bit by getting the words wrong, and I found that rather endearing. Others, I believe, have been more critical. Cinderella is played by Natasha J Barnes and is a hearty and good natured soul in the best tradition of the role. Lee Mead, as Prince Charming, allows himself to be ridiculed by constant musical references to show tunes that he has made his own in previous productions and on TV; and, on even more of a self-deprecating trip, Lord Chamberlain Nigel Havers is constantly turning up, only to find he has no lines in this scene, and begging to be allowed to participate in the next. It’s a beautifully sequenced saga of ritual humiliation.

count-arthur-strongIn a break from normal tradition, the Ugly Sisters are actually played by women! Suzie Chard and Wendy Somerville are the delightfully named Verruca and Hernia and they do a good job but they are basically outshone by the all the other stars that surround them. The only problem comes with Baron Hardup played by Steve Delaney’ alter ego, the rambling and forgetful Count Arthur Strong. As soon as the Count comes on and starts dithering it seems to sap all energy from the production. His laughs are few and far between and frankly (and this is an unpleasant thing to admit) you can’t wait for him to get off the stage. He redeems himself in the aforementioned If I Were Not in Pantomime scene, but I think his appearance is simply too much at odds with the showbizzy glamour of everything and everyone else on stage.

Still, the rest of the show is so good that this little quibble really doesn’t matter. A triumphant return of panto to the Palladium, and a packed theatre full of ecstatic punters. We’ll definitely be booking for next year!

Production photos by Paul Coltas and Steve Williams

Review – Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

Half a SixpenceOne of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.

charlie-stempThings change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)

pick-out-a-simple-tuneTo be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.

flash-bang-wallopAs I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!

half-a-sixpenceNo doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamThere’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsBut this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempIan Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.

ian-bartholomewAn absolute treat from start to finish, we left the theatre beaming from ear to ear. You simply have to see this one!

P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench

Review – In The Heights, Kings Cross Theatre, 29th December 2016

In The HeightsI’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to seeing In The Heights. It has a great reputation as the winner of three Olivier awards; it features one of my favourite stage actors, David Bedella; it’s choreographed by man-of-the-moment Drew McOnie; and it’s being staged at the Kings Cross Theatre round the back of the station, which would be a venue new to me. What’s not to look forward to? When I realised that it would be closing on 8th January, I knew that our Christmas break would be our last opportunity.

ith-sam-mackaySo let’s start off with some observations about the theatre itself. Tucked unpromisingly away at the end of some long tarpaulined corridors by the back entrance to Kings Cross station, we wondered a) whether we’d come to the right place and b) if either of us would get out alive. However, eventually the paths lead to a wide, open bar/reception area, which was full of excited people milling around, eating and drinking – and the overall atmosphere is terrific. There was a real sense of occasion, an almost dangerous vibe, that you rarely get in some of the more established and rarefied London theatres. You have a choice of platforms to watch the show from – I don’t think it makes a difference which as the show is performed in traverse, so either way you get excellent sight lines.

ith-freeflow-choreoIt does however mean that it takes longer than you expect to go from the bar to the auditorium, as all your fellow theatregoers make their way through just two small entrances (one to each platform). They didn’t start letting people in until about ten minutes before the show was due to start, and there was no way everyone would be in place in that short space of time. So if you’re the kind of person who finds announcements like “the show will begin in one minute” sweat-inducing when there are still dozens of people in front of you, just make sure you hover near the platform doors before they are opened. Inside, the acting space is long and narrow, but that’s nothing a talented choreographer can’t use to their advantage. I thought it was a great little venue – and they’ve even gone to the trouble to provide thoroughly decent wine for sale as well.

ith-bodegaThe show itself is set in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American neighbourhood in New York City, and depicts the love lives, the ambitions, the desperations and the exhilarations of living in that locale. You’ve got Usnavi, who runs the little bodega, working hard to make ends meet, entranced by the beautiful Vanessa but almost too enfeebled by life to see his way to trying to build a relationship. You’ve got Kevin, who runs the taxi company, taking out expensive loans so that he can finance his daughter Nina through college – even though she’s dropped out and her heart is no longer in it. You’ve got Daniela, who runs the hair salon, trying to steer the younger people in what she thinks is the right direction in their careers and in their love lives. You’ve got Nina and Benny, she the taxi “heiress”, he the radio controller,IN THE HEIGHTS forging a relationship despite her father’s disapproval. You’ve got Sonny, Usnavi’s smartass brother, in danger of letting success pass him by, although he is not without ambition. And you’ve got Abuela Claudia, who wins the lottery. Over the course of two hours and twenty minutes their lives get stretched and subjected to all kinds of emotional battering, but in a relatively unusual turn of events, there’s a really feel-good and uplifting end to the show that leaves most of the characters in a better place than they were at the beginning. You could almost call it a happy ending.

IN THE HEIGHTSThe story is fast moving and rewarding, and the songs are emotional, uplifting and atmospheric. I loved Drew McOnie’s joyous choreography – I knew I would; it hits you from the first instant and shakes you up as inventive routine follows inventive routine. In response to the lively Latino sounds, he creates a brilliant blend of hip hop, salsa and rap, bringing a show that has its roots somewhere between West Side Story and Rent firmly into the 21st century. Mind you, he is blessed with a simply superb ensemble who live every inch of those dance moves. The production looks beautiful too, with atmospheric sets and costumes – and indeed, with Nina, Daniela, Vanessa and Camila all squeezed into figure-hugging salsa dresses, things often get a little hot under the collar. Gabriella Slade’s costume design for the show is a true work of art.

IN THE HEIGHTSOne of the muffled announcements that was made twice before the show, and which, on neither occasion, did I catch properly, listed all the cast-changes for that performance, rattled off at great speed because there were so many of them. I understood hardly any of it. So, apologies in advance if I get any of the performers’ names wrong. I did, however, catch that David Bedella would not be performing (sad) and that the role of Kevin would be played by Vas Constanti. Nothing against Mr Constanti, but the role of Kevin is quite mundane anyway, and I think would need someone of the charisma of Mr Bedella to make it stand out. The other major male role is that of Usnavi, played brilliantly by Sam Mackay; a central, Everyman character, and a force for good and kindness. Mr Mackay has a wonderful stage presence and is a great song and dance man.

IN THE HEIGHTSGabriela Garcia, who plays Nina, is one of those can’t take your eyes off her performers. She looks stunning; she runs the gamut of emotions with apparently effortless ease; and she has a beautiful singing voice. Sarah Naudi’s Vanessa is another great performance with a dynamic emotional click; and Aimie Atkinson’s Daniela is a lot of fun to watch, as she revels in the attention of being the boss and, let’s not deny it, looks super sexy in that dress. Among the supporting cast, I really liked Damian Buhagiar as Sonny, conveying all those recognisable signs of being the irrepressible little brother – and he’s also an amazing dancer. Juliet Gough is superb as Camila, clearly the power behind the throne at the taxi company, and, among the ensemble, Genesis Lynea has a brilliant stage presence and is a most stylish dancer.

IN THE HEIGHTSWhen the show ends, you feel a satisfying sense of exhilaration and real humanity. Congratulations to this most talented and energetic cast on bringing a little piece of Latino New York to Kings Cross. Possibly the greatest compliment I could give this is show is that you don’t feel like you’re in London, you really do feel transported to Washington Heights. Closing on the 8th January, but I can’t believe that will be the last we will see of this little gem.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Dead Funny, Vaudeville Theatre, 28th December 2016

Dead FunnyTime for our annual few days in the capital city between Christmas and New Year to catch some shows, do some shopping and overeat because we didn’t at Christmas time – and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. No sooner had we checked into our hotel than we were out and about again, heading towards the Vaudeville Theatre to see Dead Funny for its Wednesday matinee. This fairly ground-breaking comedy appeared on the London stage way back in 1994, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t go to the theatre much due to extreme poverty. But its reputation as a savage comedy has remained in good stead during the intervening years, and I was very happy to book for its current reincarnation, so that I could see what all the fuss was about first hand.

katharine-parkinson-and-rufus-jonesIt’s hard to underestimate just how irritating a true comedy nerd can be. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. As a teenager, I was in a crowd at school who knew every line to every Monty Python sketch, every Reginald Perrin scene, every Dad’s Army episode. As Not The Nine O’Clock News once so accurately stated, we are still ostensibly a Python-worshipping country: “when two or three are gathered together in one place then they shall perform the Parrot Sketch. It is an ex-parrot. ALL: It has ceased to be.” But comedy is a fickle idol; comedians die, and their work, eventually, for the most part, will die with them. Dead Funny is set on that particular day in April 1992 when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died. Now, you and I, gentle reader, remember them both very well, as we are all of a certain age, I fear. But what of older comics? The comedy nerds in Dead Funny also recite by heart sketches by Max Miller. Wo! That’s way out of my league. I never saw Max Miller on television – he died in 1963, for heaven’s sake. My only link to him is remembering the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s own unique impersonation of Maxie, which would surface whenever she thought she had an appreciative audience: “listen, listen, Blackpool Rock, Blackpool Rock, big as your father’s… cock your eyes over there lady!” With those kind of traumatic childhood memories, I never needed to see the original.

Black and white comedy screensThe oldest reference in the play is to Little Tich, whom I believe my great-aunt saw on the London stage in the 1920s. But for how long will these names be remembered? I did recognise him in the black and white footage shown on the stage before curtain-up, but I bet not many others did. I also recognised the theme tunes of Harry Worth, Comedy Playhouse and Hancock. I dwell on this because I think it’s unfortunate that the time will come when this play will be a museum piece, as Fred Scuttle and Lurcio have faded off into long distance memory. It’s a particular shame because the play deals with the very real and up to date horrors of marital deception and those unique anxieties that come about when you’re “trying for a baby”. Eleanor is desperate to have a baby but her husband Richard is desperate to put off having sex with her. The neighbours, Nick and Lisa, have a baby which only puts additional pressure on Eleanor. Their other neighbour Brian comes out as gay to no one’s surprise but his own, believing he is the reason why everyone else is at their own throats, whereas in fact he is the only blameless person in the play.

steve-pemberton-and-katharine-parkinsonJust one thing unites Richard, Nick, Lisa and Brian – they are all comedy nerds, members of the Dead Funny club, that celebrates the life and work of comedians and comedy actors who have shuffled off this mortal coil. Eleanor sees this as just childish nonsense so is even more alienated as a result. It’s a play about relationships, about loyalty, about facing up to your responsibilities. It’s about as savage as a comedy can be whilst still making you laugh uproariously whilst choking back the ghastliness of its context. As an example, there’s a joke about how to tell if your wife has Alzheimer’s or AIDS. There’s really no coming back from that sentence, is there? The punchline genuinely shocked me (and I’m not a shockable guy). But I also laughed for ages.

dead-funny-castIt’s an absolutely superb production, with all five characters played as a masterclass of comedy acting. Katherine Parkinson is just brilliant as the woebegone Eleanor, keeping her bewildered emotions just in check as she goes through the motions of “wooing” her husband, slowly piecing together the elements that lead to possible marital infidelity, treading a fine line of near hysteria as her world comes tumbling down. Rufus Jones is excellent as the unwilling Richard, praying for the sex to be over so that he can get on with important issues like ringing up his mates and talking about Benny Hill. Kudos to Mr Jones for playing that excruciating (but hilarious) nude scene with such aplomb. Ralf Little brings a nice balance of laddishness and aggression to the character of Nick, a true comedy nerd if ever there was one; Emily Berrington delivers Lisa’s platitudes in a wonderfully quirky monotone; and Steve Pemberton’s Brian is a true gent who offers kindness and support wherever he can, so long as he can do it as Fred Scuttle.

katharine-parkinson-and-emily-berringtonA very funny play, that leads you up the garden path with an inventive and surprising storyline and leaves five people in a very different place from where they started. Agonising in its examination of those little things that can bring people together and can tear them apart. No wonder it won so many awards first time around. First rate!