Sunday 17 September 2023

Theatre review: Frank and Percy

From several years - on and off - of the violent teenage musical shenanigans of Heathers resident on its main stage, it's a major change of pace as Ben Weatherill's Frank and Percy comes to London via Windsor and Bath. The gentle romantic comedy has been well-received on those earlier runs but what made a London transfer almost inevitable was the star casting of the titular pair: Roger Allam is Frank, widowed a couple of years earlier, and with little left to comfort him in his retirement other than his spoilt dog. It's on one of their visits to Hampstead Heath that he meets fellow dog-walker Percy (Ian McKellen,) and they strike up some small talk (the play was partly inspired by the way dog-walkers during lockdown found that chatting to each other became a treasured social interaction.)

The inevitable chat about the weather takes a different turn when the next time they meet, Percy has brought a spare umbrella with him because he knows Frank will be unprepared.

They talk about their dogs of course - Percy has strong opinions about Frank overfeeding his - and develop an odd-couple friendship. But Percy isn't above making regular jokes somewhere between the flirtatious and the filthy - a story about someone deep-throating a cucumber and references to the things he can do with his tongue - and Weatherill has form in dealing with romantic relationships between people whose love lives tend to be swept under the carpet: Jellyfish saw a woman with Down's Syndrome on the dating scene, and Frank and Percy gives us the understated but fast-moving start of a same-sex relationship between pensioners.

Percy has been out of the closet for a long time, and after a 30-year relationship is still close to the ex he broke up with 20 years earlier (appropriately enough this is directed by Sean Mathias who, decades after they broke up as a couple, remains McKellen's most regular professional collaborator.) Frank has led life as a straight man but always been vaguely aware of his unacknowledged bisexuality. There's a refreshing lack of drama around his coming-out (he's not really got enough people left in his life for it to affect anyone) and the new couple's preparations for Pride are one of the broader comic setpieces.

But most of the comedy comes from the back-and-forth from a couple of actors who clearly enjoy verbally bouncing off each other, particularly with the smuttier lines and the shocked responses they clearly relish, and that rapport's where the play's moments of sadness and tenderness come from as well. It's a simple idea for a play and you can sometimes feel the strain as Weatherill tries to give it a scope wider than it can really handle: While the pair's disagreements on Climate Change are refreshingly low-key (it boils down to them disagreeing on how it should be tackled, rather than any attention-seeking denial that it exists,) this feels like a clumsy and underexplored thread. Frank and Percy's strengths come when it focuses on just nailing the understated but frequently very funny rom-com that's been promised.

Frank and Percy by Ben Weatherill is booking until the 3rd of December at The Other Palace.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jack Merriman.

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