Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 11 March, 2011

Tim Firth wrote A Man Of Letters, about a man putting up a giant sign on the side of a building, as a one-act play in 1991. In 2006, it became the two-act piece Absolutely Frank, which has been slightly revised further to Sign Of The Times. The story has been through nearly as many versions as The Return Of Martin Guerre, and like that musical it still doesn’t buzz and spark the way the mammoth letters do.
It is not so much a single play as a diptych of one-acters. In the first act (the original), old hand Frank is holding forth to work experience teenager Alan, as it gradually becomes apparent that what he is erecting is not (as he thinks) his employers’ logo but a For Sale sign, in effect advertising his own redundancy. Act Two is set three years or so later: Alan is now a management trainee in an electrical retailer’s in the same building and Frank turns up as a long-term-unemployed Restart candidate. There is much byplay about the differences between their generations, rather more about their growing similarities, and most of all about being true to one’s own spirit and dreams. Much of the dialogue, especially Frank’s, is written in that self-conscious, slightly rhetorical but northern-accented dramatic dialect also familiar as Alan Bennettese or Victoria Wooden. This lends itself well to the whimsical, sentimental register of the play, which pretends to recognise contemporary social and economic circumstances even when what it really offers is platitudinous escapism from them.
After his career as a television presenter, Matthew Kelly has built a reputation – initially unexpected by many, but consistently merited – as an able and dedicated actor in everything from Shakespeare to Beckett; Frank, however, is the kind of role he could phone in, if there were any phones on Morgan Large’s stage set. As Alan, Gerard Kearns from Channel 4’s Shameless has little more to do in his West End debut than be visibly younger than Kelly. Nothing about the play or production is bad, but nor is anything at all distinctive. This show is on; it has Matthew Kelly in it; the theatre's new loos are very nice. That’s really all that need be said about it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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