Life & Culture

Frank and Percy review: Encounters of a limited nature

Directed by Sean Mathias and first seen at the Theatre Royal Windsor, this play would work well on the radio


Frank and Percy
The Other Palace | ★★★✩✩

You can tell a lot about a play by how and whether the mind wanders during its performance. On this occasion I found myself recalling two recent micro-disappointments from two of my — indeed the nation’s — favourite actors.

Neither was their fault. But such is the chasm between what Ben Weatherill’s mildly entertaining two-hander intends and what it achieves it was difficult during the longueurs of this two-and-a-half-hour whimsy not to dwell on my glancing encounters with its stars, Roger Allam and Sir Ian McKellen.

Both esteemed actors are responsible for an immeasurable amount of pleasure on stage, screen and, particularly in Allam’s case recently, radio where Conversations From a Long Marriage co-starring Joanna Lumley has been a Radio 4 hit.

In many ways Weatherill’s gentle two and a half hours, in which Allam’s widower Frank and McKellen’s divorcee Percy strike up a friendship while walking their dogs, is similar to Conversations.

It is constructed from short scenes — 22 of them — which tend to end on a note of poignancy or humour about the solitude experienced by many people in later life, or how we live with the legacy of decisions made in the dim and distant past.

Directed by Sean Mathias and first seen at the Theatre Royal Windsor, this play would work well on radio.

On stage it relies heavily on the acting talents of these two terrific actors whose different charismas can always be relied upon to fill a stage.

Conversation is struck up about the always off-stage dogs Bruno (owned by Percy) and Toffee, whose canine companion Sauce died soon after Frank’s wife, it emerges. Other details are revealed like the contents of an old-fashioned photograph as it develops in a tray.

We learn Percy was also married, to a husband. To this, Allam’s Frank quietly responds like a fistful of pennies dropping at the same time. Despite the very different romantic histories of the two characters, the duo become a couple. Yet they are neither odd nor as funny as Neil Simon’s.

The play explores an unremarkable notion, that it is never too late to discover a latent sexuality (in Frank’s case) or a capacity to love selflessly (in Percy’s).

The sense that the two are in some way being transgressive for exploring a new relationship in late middle age (very late in McKellen’s case) is strangely misplaced. Is the message here that sexual longing and a yearning to be in a relationship exist beyond retirement age?

Mulling this I had plenty of time to remember how Allam recently asked me to move my daughter’s newly bought bike.

I had thoughtlessly leant it against a bench on a train platform while transporting the birthday present home, preventing anyone else from sitting down.

It seems I had triggered the Allam air of irritation that so beautifully informs his performances in Frank and Percy and Conversations.

I heard him before I saw him, and in that lovely sing-song, dark brown voice of his he asked if I minded moving the bike while wheeling it away himself, then taking his seat as far away from me as the now available bench would allow.

I wanted to tell him how much I have enjoyed every one of his performances before and throughout my reviewing career, but the risk of adding to the annoyance I had already caused seemed too high.

Similarly, when I was walking in east London’s Limehouse along the route that takes me to my local pub The Grapes, I wanted to tell its owner Ian McKellen who was striding next to me for a few yards how I so wished children were allowed in this great Dickensian boozer of his.

As things stand my wife and I will never be able to pop in for a drink together until our youngest who is six months old, goes to university.

But as with Allam the point of the conversation seemed limited.

A little like this play I couldn’t help but note.

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