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Feb 09. Geoffrey Hughes on stage in

Absolutely Frank



Frank Tollit mounts giant letters on buildings and all sorts retailer shops. This has been his job for 30 years. However what Frank always wanted to do is writing spy novels where heroes are involved in dangerous stories of espionage, treachery, disasters, explosions and daring rescues. Unfortunately, his work never was really convincing until the day all those things started to happen for real. These remarkable events will mark Frank's life for ever and teach him how to live happier than ever.



Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Fairbottom Street
Tel: 0161 624 2829,

January 29-February 21 2009

Harrogate Theatre
Oxford Street
Tel: 01423 502116,
February 26-March 14 2009
Wote Street
RG21 7NW, UK
Tel: 01256 844244,
March 18-28 2009


A play written by Tim Firth
Directed by Noreen Kershaw
Designed by Rodney Ford


Interview with Geoffrey Huges about Absolutely Frank



Des O'Malley (Alan) and Geoffrey Hughes (Frank). Photos: Ian Tilton


Various reviews


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 with.

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 his last.

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 Neville’s Island, The Safari Party, Our House, and the screenplay for the hit film (and recent stage adaptation) Calendar Girls.

Absolutely Frank 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?

Absolutely Frank 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 did.

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 viewing.

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 in Scarborough.

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 buildings.

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 progresses.

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