The death of Benny Hill provides the impetus for this comedy about impotence, sex therapy and the English sense of humour. Eleanor wants what Richard will not give her; Richard wants to be left in peace. Benny would rather rest in peace but for tonight at least, his friends won't let him.
This play, a tragic-comedy, has laughter and pain devastatingly intertwined and only ever a heartbeat away from one another. One emotion seems to heighten the other, resulting in the audience roaring with laughter as the tragedy unfolds.
So ... what is funny? Eleanor, the frustrated wife, is out of step with her husband's Dead Funny Society and its small membership. Unlike them, she fails to see the funny side of their great heroes. She finds Benny Hill, tasteless, sexist and not in the least humorous, as may you. The undeniable truth is that he has many, many others rolling in the aisles. We all have our favourite comedians; those with whom we identify, those who strike a chord with their delivery, their observations and their viewpoints. In my opinion, it is impossible to agree on what is funny. One thing is clear however, just as comedy and tragedy are so closely intertwined - comedy and sex are also regular bedfellows.
The Society's favourites come out of Music Hall and through Variety. They thrived on male fantasies about the limitless possibilities of sex. Back then, the censorship rules ensured the place of the innuendo and double meaning. Now we are allowed the full frontal barrage of imagery and swearing. Which works for you?
Like the men in The Dead Funny Society, their heroes exist in emotionally dysfunctional states, a bunch of misfits, in no way the "sexual magnets" their sketches would suggest. No sexual fulfilment for them, rather a state of constant expectation that a woman might, one day, look at them twice. So many of these great comics created characters that were perpetual adolescents and sexual inadequates; great big schoolboys like Norman Wisdom and Benny Hill; clownish grotesques like the two Maxes, Miller and Wall; despairing loners like Tony Hancock; childlike innocents like Tommy Cooper. For some, like Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, the strength of their stage personas was entirely dependent on the overtly camp. These two were stalwarts of leering, pop-eyed lusting; the best of the oglers and yet ultimately disinterested in women in the flesh.
Comedy is a funny business, it requires precision timing and that takes a huge amount of repetitive slog to get right, the endless tweaking of little details.
The pay-off comes in performance - those satisfying moments when a director and cast share with an audience the roar of laughter that happens when the comedy really works. One of the added joys of a play such as Dead Funny is its ability to switch moods in an instant, pulling the rug from under the audience, as we see humour turn to suffering. At the time of writing, I can't say whether the pay-offs will happen, but I can say that I am working with a great cast and crew and.... I am quietly confident.