Tim Firth has worked with some
of the best-known figures in modern British drama. He entered the theatrical
world under the aegis of Alan Ayckbourn, who provided him with his first
break when in 1991 he commissioned the one-act play A Man of Letters for a
lunchtime slot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. It told the
story of a middle-aged man, Frank, who fixes super-sized signage to the
sides of buildings for a living.
Fifteen years later, Firth revisited his early material and extended it into
a full-length play. The first act retains all the elements of the original:
Frank (Geoffrey Hughes) is middle-aged, overweight, and disappointed. Since
he was a boy he has tried to write spy novels featuring characters with
names like Stolichnaya and Smirnoff, only to see every publisher reject
them. But while wont to bouts of self-doubt, he takes enormous pride in his
dayjob hanging signs, and is keen to pass on some wisdom to his teenager
apprentice Alan (Des O’Malley).
Alan may be slow-witted, but he has a gift for graphic design that Frank
finds easy to admire – hence his bewilderment when Alan tells him he decided
to pack in his college course and try to hit it big with his band. Over the
course of the first act Frank mentors Alan in the art of sign-making and
tries to teach him the virtue of an honest living, while we gain touching
insight into his frustration and failures. But the world is changing:
diligence and dignity count for less and less and, when the curtain falls at
the end of the first act, Frank is at his lowest point yet.
Absolutely Frank is a funny play and the humour is in keeping with the
provincial settings of Firth’s other material, which includes the films
Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots. Grand themes like failure and happiness are
explored through entirely mundane situations and, as in other northern
comedies like The Royal Family (which also features Hughes), a great deal of
laughter is eked out of hopelessness. It’s never dismal or depressing – so
long as you don’t think too hard about the situation you’re being presented
Hughes is perfectly cast as Frank – few others could more ably communicate
the character’s mixture of pathos and affability – and, the odd first-night
slip aside, his performance was excellent. O’Malley is good, too, and
together they create an appropriately odd couple. The only minor complaint I
had was with the second act, in which the tables are turned as Frank returns
to work in a homeware shop after a long period of unemployment to find his
mentor is a suited and gawkily grinning Alan, whose musical project has
since failed to take off. This act is shorter than the first – not unusual
in itself – but never manages to develop into anything more than an addendum
to the play’s earlier incarnation as A Man of Letters. It’s still funny, and
quite sweet, but Firth has to fall back on farce as means of resolving what
is a deeply down-to-earth story.
Not that this is a reason to avoid the play, however, which guarantees a
night of good laughs. Get yourself to Oldham.
Alex Baumont. Entertaiment Manchester
Tim Firth continues to mine
the rich comic seam of the world of work in
this wonderfully inventive two-hander, an
extended version of the one-act play that
began life in 1991.
It brilliantly explores the
innermost thoughts of two men on the top of
the world - well, on the top of a big office
block, actually, erecting one of those signs
that can be seen from miles away.
For one, Alan, it is his
first day on the job, as a seemingly
uncommitted trainee. For the other, Frank,
who at first comes across as the model
time-serving company man, it turns out to be
Former Coronation Street
stalwart Geoffrey Hughes is a revelation, in
the eponymous role, as the lugubrious,
thinking man’s installation manager,
inducting the new recruit into the mysteries
of the profession and making it all just a
little more complicated than it needs to be.
We are surprised to learn,
however, that in his spare time he is a
writer of spy novels, and as he reflects
inwardly on his next chapter, we see his
noble struggle as the possessor of literary
ambition without the necessary talent.
Alan, played by the
outstanding Des O’Malley, also surprises us,
not just because he turns out to be a hoodie
with a heart, but for what he can teach
Frank about knowing yourself, having
realistic ambitions and going with the flow.
Clearly the audience, who at
times were gassing themselves with
merriment, loved every moment.
The Stage. Andrew Liddle
An unashamed populist,
Tim Firth is the award-winning writer of
The Safari Party,
Our House, and the screenplay for the hit film (and
recent stage adaptation) Calendar Girls.
might only be a two hander but it’s a play with an important
question at its heart: what happens to a man who has done the
same job since 16 but finds himself redundant at 56? Is change
possible, working under a boss half his age?
Still best known as Corrie’s Eddie Yates,
Geoffrey Hughes plays malcontent Frank, a frustrated thriller
writer whose day job involves erecting signs on the tops of
buildings. Frank wants a more glamorous life: ‘To be immortal –
for a bit, anyway.’ Yet his various novels – The Spy Who
Came in from the Warm included – all remain unpublished:
Frank blames God for cursing him with ambition but no talent.
Young trainee Alan (Des O’Malley) is the mirror opposite; gifted
but blessed with a laissez faire attitude. Then Frank discovers
he’s soon to be out of a job. Does the scrap heap beckon?
began life as a one-act play at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre. This is no handicap as Act 2
ingeniously finds the former mentor and apprentice reversing
roles. Firth cleverly spoofs the world of high-pressure retail
selling, and its obsession with motivational acronyms (S.P.A.P.O
– Smile/Personal Attention/Personally Own). Yet he shies away
from exploring Frank’s broken dignity by contriving a pointless
slapstick finale, and the issue is not mentioned again.
Ignorance is bliss - a writing maxim beloved of Coronation
Street scriptwriters. Odd then that Firth has never written
for the programme.
On opening night, Hughes appeared nervous and
unsure of his lines, and for such an experienced performer, his
comic timing was unusually off. Yet he brings warmth to the
character, and there is an undeniable chemistry between him and
O’Malley, a gawky bundle of youthful energy. I’d like to see
these two perform together in something with greater depth.
None of which is to diminish Firth’s skill as a
comic writer. He can write a one-liner with the best of them
(‘Taking notes is the mental equivalent of sitting on a
stair-lift’, observes Frank). But it would be good to see him
stepping outside his comfort zone occasionally.
What's on stage. Steve Timms
A play for today about a man of letters which
only scratches the surface
This piece started life as a one-act play (Man of Letters) in
1991 …coincidently a time when this Country’s last recession was
biting hardest. Its message is the pursuit of happiness and the
castles we choose to build in the sky and the reluctant
compromise that most of us actually accept in real life – failed
ambition is the bitterest pill to swallow.
Back then it featured only two actors - Frank (nearing
retirement) and young Alan, who’s landed a work experience
placement for a week with Frank - who on the surface exudes more
job satisfaction than a candlestick maker in Heaven. By the end
though Frank’s world is turned upside down as he learns that 40
years of unbroken loyalty to his employer does not necessarily
gain a place in the aforementioned Heaven. On top of this is
Frank’s realisation that his working life has been spent in a
job he never really loved, he just convinced himself that he
Fast Forward 15 years later to 2006 when Tim Firth chose to add
a second act - a sort of ‘where are they now?’ update and
retitled the extended piece ‘Absolutely Frank’. Prior to
viewing, I looked forward to its relevance to the economically
troubled present day, a harsh time when many decent folk are
experiencing precisely what Frank did – but for real. Also I had
recently seen ‘The Wrestler’ & Revolutionary Road at the cinema,
both of which admirably dealt with a similar theme.
Unfortunately, my expectations proved too lofty and I left
feeling disappointed, largely as a result of the failure of the
script to dig deep enough.
Granted, we know exactly what Frank (Geoffrey Hughes) feels and
thinks, but only in the most general terms…it never feels as
though he’s speaking from the heart – more a case of a lifetime
rehearsed monologue. In fact this ‘talking heads’ approach means
his exchanges with Alan (Des O’Malley) never feel like a true
(spontaneous) interaction. Furthermore, the portrayal of Alan is
almost too comic, a bit too much of the Bisto Kid; apart from a
pair of mp3 earphones there’s nothing any group of 16-21yr olds
could identify with (I was accompanied by one). Other, that is,
than being ‘put down’ by a condescending adult!
I like the underlying sense of calm youthful smartness that
surfaces occasionally…we know who is the brighter and contented
of the two.
The play feels wafer thin, resulting in a feeling of dutiful
Reviews Gate. Soon Barar
MOST famous currently for his hit comedy
Calendar Girls, local lad Tim Firth has been penning stage
scripts for a couple of decades now and this particular
piece was one of his first, written when he was asked to
produce a short lunchtime show for Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre
It was a success in its own write but Firth
has recently extended it into a full evening’s entertainment
by adding a second act and – in this handsomely-mounted
Coliseum production – turning it into an amusing night out.
Frank is a 57-year-old electrician and
industrial sign engineer who has aspirations to be a writer
of thrillers. We join him as he is erecting giant display
lettering on an office block roof.
Up there with him is Alan, a work experience
teenage hoodie plugged into his MP3, who would rather be
rehearsing with a rock band than clinging to the sides of
The first half takes place 60 feet above
ground, on a top floor ledge and the ingeniously-designed
set springs a scenic surprise at the end of the act when the
sign is revealed in all its glory.
The more recently written second half moves
things on, taking place some considerable time later and
finding Frank now re-training as a salesperson and turning
up for an interview with, well, I’m sure you can guess.
It’s a witty odd couple comedy with plenty of wry
observations, all topped off with a visual gag that’s even
better than the one that closed the first half. The writing
however is patchy in places and although the basic ideas are
novel and intriguing, I wanted to laugh more than I did.
Director Noreen Kershaw keeps up the pace but hasn’t made
some of action quite as clear as it needs to be and there
are more laughs to be gained when she does.
Geoffrey Hughes (The Royale Family, Heartbeat) is Frank, and
young and increasingly sought-after, City College
Manchester-trained Des O’Malley, is Alan. They’re a good
team already but will no doubt relax into it more as the run
Designer Rodney Ford is the other star of the show,
providing two hugely impressive and complex settings of
rooftop and office that add greatly to the fun.
City Life. Alan Hulme