This gentle comedy by Tim Firth has been 20 years in the making, the ideas for the first and second acts coming to him two decades apart. And it shows.
Though the two acts are only set three years apart, not 20, such is the contrast between the two that it at first seems like watching a different play. Indeed, when the interval lights come up, you would be forgiven for thinking that Firth has written a bijou one-act play that has been rounded off nicely. In fact, he returns following the interval with a contrasting act which complements the first whilst turning it on its head.
It opens on the rooftop of an office building where sign-installer Frank (Matthew Kelly) is a attempting to assemble the giant letters of a sign which will broadcast its message to the Yorkshire town of Batley some 60 feet below. He is aided – or hindered – by 16-year-old work experience boy Alan (Gerard Kearns). Frank fancies himself a crime writer, and composes prose into his Dictaphone at every opportunity; Alan, meanwhile, is a picture of disinterest, earphones jammed in his ears and hands in his pockets. But our initial assumptions about them are dispelled when it turns out Alan may be the true visionary of the pair, with Frank merely a petty pedant stuck on the treadmill.
Act two’s role reversal – played out on Morgan Large’s equally back to front set – sees Alan, now 19, a ‘trainee assistant deputy manager’ at an electronics firm, where he inhabits a depressingly grubby office in the back end of the building. Frank, now unemployed, turns up at Alan’s office on a dole queue scheme intended to give those close to retirement a ‘second chance’ at work. Via an increasingly farcical plot set-up, we come to understand that Alan is now trapped in a net of walkie-talkies and pretentious acronyms, while Frank has been set free by his redundancy to indulge his artistic passions.
With a message of following your dreams and staying true to yourself, Firth’s play is hardly revelatory, but it keeps the attention with solid performances from both actors, particularly Kearns in his West End debut. Though the comedy at times strays into punch-line territory, there are some genuinely funny moments, including the assertion that the words ‘jumper’ and ‘casserole’ have no place in a novel title. I would like to see an author try.