Review – Myra Dubois, Dead Funny, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2021

Dead FunnyOn reflection, it was a bit odd that this was first time we had seen Myra Dubois, as it coincided with her (alleged) death and conducting her own funeral in person; but as she said, it wasn’t the first time someone had died on stage in Northampton (and I suspect she says that in every town she visits!) Yes, Yorkshire’s Rose has passed away, and Radio Rotherham laments this fact as we enter the auditorium to a series of amusingly inappropriate tracks in expectation for the show.

Frank LavenderAs a warm-up for the main event of the evening, we meet Frank Lavender. Who he? He’s Myra’s brother-in-law, a bluff and gruff Yorkshireman who enjoys ill-health and sports a hairstyle to rival William Gladstone. Frank’s a lugubrious but strangely likeable presence, someone who has taken to the stage even though they have none of the attributes required to be any form of entertainer. As Myra says, she only has him on as her support act so that people are ready for a laugh by the time she appears. Of course, it’s also a way for Myra, through a miraculous stage osmosis, to meet some of the audience before she takes to the stage. Frank sets himself a target to achieve about 30 laughs during his set, and Julie in the front row had to take an official tally. Julie had an amazing infectious laugh, by the way, that really helped the show bed in. He met his target, with a few groans to spare.

Myra DuboisAfter a longer than usual interval – required for Frank to transform himself into Myra – Rotherham’s favourite glamour puss arrived on stage in a scintillating white shroud, and the process of sending her to her eternal rest could get underway. It’s a funny pretext for an hour or so in Myra’s catty company, jibing with the audience with some occasionally very personal observations, getting away with some extremely iffy material because it was delivered with such panache as well as fabulous timing – as well as being extremely funny. We are treated to her glorious voice for a few numbers, in which the audience are welcome to join. There’s a marvellous sequence where audience members assist in delivering the service; it’s based on a ludicrous amount of repetition which can be a recipe for disaster in a comedy act and which some people (yes, I’m looking at you Stewart Lee) can’t get away with anymore; but this was hysterical. Myra traded banter with a few of what she calls the Acronym Community; our friend David in the second row took it all in very good heart.

Myra and EdnaNot having seen the act before, I was struck by the similarity between Frank Lavender/Myra Dubois and Les Patterson/Edna Everage. Both sets of characters are somewhere on the grotesque spectrum, with remarkable abilities to interact (in other words get away with murder) with the audience and set up great callbacks that you can’t see coming. Additionally, facially, Myra and Edna share that same heavily-lipsticked gurning pout of disgust; and both have – shall we say – heightened opinions of their own vocal range. But it’s far from a copycat act, and Myra is her own delightfully caustic comic creation. I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers when I say that news of her own passing is revealed to be premature come the end of the show, and I’m sure Myra will be back on stage dispensing her South Yorkshire pearls of wisdom again soon. Great fun!

Myra draped over coffinP. S. A word on Covid-Care in the Underground Studio at the Royal and Derngate. We had been reticent about coming to see shows here in these pandemic times, because the studio always has been essentially an airless box, usually packed with laughing, drinking, carefree comedy punters. However, I can report that the new ventilation system, which brings fresh air in from outside, and well-spaced seating made the venue feel much safer than expected. We wore masks, most didn’t; but this made no difference to the banter and interaction between the stage and the audience. So if you’re concerned about coming to the Underground at the moment, I’d say that they’ve made every effort to make it as safe as possible.

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!