I wonder what Joe Orton would have been writing now, had he lived, and now I think I’ve found something at least part way as offensive as he would have aimed for – though frankly even Orton would have struggled to shock audiences in 2017. In the 60s he scandalised with language and taboo themes in inky black comedies that pushed boundaries, though in structure his work was remarkably conventional drama and, latterly, farce.
In the same way, Death at a Funeral (2007 UK version directed by Frank Oz, not the 2010 American remake which is considered far less the funnier) is remarkably reminiscent of its forebears, the black comedies of the past in its theatrical structure, but it works overtime to portray the worst things that might happen at a funeral.
These include hallucinogenic drugs stashed in a Valium bottle, an ageing wheelchair-using potty-mouthed uncle who needs to defecate urgently, and an American dwarf using photographs of himself having sex with the deceased to blackmail the relatives. Just your average everyday family gathering then! I need not attempt to explain the plot in huge detail though, since the narrative is probably much how you imagine frenetic farces to be conducted.
For ensemble pieces, a fine ensemble cast is required, and to go at a rattling pace. Sure enough, Oz has gathered a splendid array of largely British comic talent to good effect, spearheaded by Matthew McFadyen‘s staid and awkward Daniel, determined to deliver the eulogy no matter how it makes people squirm, and screen and real life spouse Keeley Hawes.
The cast also includes the late and celebrated Peter Vaughan, Kris Marshall (the next Doctor Who?), Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame, the underused Ewen Bremner, Daisy Donovan, Jane Asher and Peter Egan, excellent comic performers all. Rupert Graves as successful novelist brother Robert and Alan Nyman are however over-used and overact more than even demanded of a farce. The funeral service is delivered by an increasingly testy minister played by Thomas Wheatley.
But the greatest discovery is an American playing a Brit – Alan Tudyk as fiancé to Donovan’s Martha who accidentally ingests the hallucinogens concocted by Marshall’s pharmacy student Troy, which products form the backbone of the plot every bit as much as the funeral of wealthy patriarch Edward, for whom the characters have gathered.
The pace of this rich and frothy concoction rises like a soufflé; increasingly silly it may become, but gratifyingly Dean Craig‘s script includes belly laughs and “oh fuck!” moments with increasing regularity. Some might describe the profanity as a little too regular in what is a decidedly genteel family home, where sparing use might well have been funnier. Creditably, it is the senior members of the cast who swear to greatest effect, notably Vaughan and Asher.
So not quite up there with Orton in the landmarks of theatrical and movie history (e.g. Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot and What The Butler Saw), but, taken at face value, a few good sniggers and groans to help an evening pass agreeably.