Sign Of The Times – April 2009

6/10

By Tim Firth

Directed by Peter Wilson

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th April 2009

It’s a while since we’ve been to Richmond theatre and it was nice to be back. According to the program notes, the play started life as a one-act piece for lunchtime diners, was revised for the stage and now has a second act, set five years after the first, to complete the story.

There are two characters; Frank, an older man who’s head of installation at a company that makes illuminated signs and Alan, a young YTS lad, who seems to have no ambition in life other than to play in a rock band and have tea and biscuits on a frequent basis. The first act shows the two men putting up a sign on the roof of the company’s own building. A new retail park is being built on the other side of the main road, so it’s an ideal time to advertise Forshaws work. Only trouble is, the letters are all wrong; they don’t spell Forshaws, and it takes some time for Alan to realise they’re meant to spell ‘For Sale’. That’s when Frank realises he’s not head of installation anymore, and that the absence of the rest of the staff is due to a relocation conference that he’s not been invited to. The act ends with Alan telling Frank to go across the road to get a view of the sign, then rearranging the letters to say ‘Frank’ and lighting it up. It’s a nice gesture, and a crafty piece of design.

The second act is set the other way round – same building, but in the top floor office looking out onto the roof. It’s now an electronics store with lots of individual illuminated letters outside and the usual storeroom jumble plus desk and flipchart inside. When Frank arrives for an interview, he’s amazed to find the deputy assistant manager is none other than Alan. Frank scrapes through the not-too-demanding entrance exam, which involves making a sales pitch for a mid-range toaster, and is rewarded with a name tag, clip-on tie and a chance to shine on the sales floor. Meanwhile Alan practises his next ten minute inspirational lecturette, a pithy, meaningful alphabetical deconstruction of the word ‘pride’ (‘p’ is for… etc.). Frank returns to have his lunch and uses the toaster they were practising with earlier, which he’d taken over to the returned goods department. Unfortunately, the toaster was faulty and smoke is soon pouring out of the next office along. Trapped in Alan’s office and with no reception on the walkie-talkie, things soon get a lot worse. The fire causes a short circuit which blows the fuses on the lights outside, and one of them, the ‘o’, sails across the roof. Trying to stop it, the pair find themselves lassoed by the letter as it continues to spark. It’s live, Frank tells Alan, and with enough volts running through it to fry them both to a crisp. There’s a lovely bit of comedy as Alan uses his mouth to get a special pen-cum-screwdriver out of Frank’s jacket, only to drop it when he responds to Frank’s query, ‘Are you ready?’ Turns out they’re not in danger; Frank was having him on – payback for a similar trick Alan played on him in the first act. The play ends with Frank realising he should have gone to the other electronics retailer over the road for his interview, and Alan deciding to leave with him to get on with his music and art.

It was good fun all the way through, with lots of humour and nice details in the writing and performances. Frank wants to be a writer, and we hear him dictating his spy thriller into a Dictaphone when Alan’s off stage. One of his school friends is now a famous writer, and we eventually find out that a childhood incident when Frank rescued his friend has been successfully used as a source for the other man’s books, while for Frank it seems to be a block. He never had someone rescue him, so he never gets further than that moment in his dictation, desperate to figure out whose hand his hero is clutching. It’s not sentimental, but it is poignant. Alan, on the other hand, is good at his art but lacks the encouragement to go to college and develop his talent.

It’s an interesting and enjoyable odd couple comedy, which still has relevance in today’s job market, sadly. Good performances from both Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw, and a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Calendar Girls – September 2008

8/10

By Tim Firth

Directed by Hamish McColl

Venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester

Date: Tuesday 23rd September 2008

The set for this will take some explaining. There was a rectangular platform on the stage, basic brown with the markings of a badminton court and a piano in the corner. Very village hall. The back wall was dark at the bottom, with a lighter top half, and a curved edge between them representing hills in the distance. As the play started, there was a lone voice singing Jerusalem, and the back wall lifted up so that the characters could come on stage, and the back part of the village hall could come forward, giving us a hatch to the kitchen and some stairs to the outside, as well as some walls to hang bunting on later.

Most of the characters formed up on the platform and began doing something which could pass for tai chi, while Elaine C Smith, as Cora, carried on singing Jerusalem on her own, varying the words a little as she got onto the second verse. From here, we follow the lives of these six women as they learn of John’s illness and death, and do their naked photo shoot to make the charity calendar. All of that takes up the first half, and while the story is much as expected, there are important differences. For a start, they’re only allowed to mention six of the women because the others no longer want anything to do with the story. And the nude bits had to be done with care, as the Festival Theatre is a seriously thrust stage, and the audience were almost completely surrounding them. There was very little detail on show, but plenty of humour as the ladies bared their flesh for the camera. The final shot, for December, had them all draped over the piano singing carols, and ended the first half.

The second half followed the amazing popularity of the calendar, and the effect it had on their lives and relationships. The play didn’t cover the trip to America, understandably, but we still got the bust up between Chris and Annie over Chris’s desire for the limelight. The final scene had all the women visiting a section of hillside where sunflower seeds had been planted, and admiring the blooms. For this, the platform was tilted – this had already been done once or twice for outdoor scenes – and the cast opened up the flaps which were covering the flowers, and lifted them up. It may have taken a bit of time, but the effect was lovely, especially through my tears. A couple of tourists arrived and want to take a picture, and the women are quite taken down when they find out it’s not the glamorous calendar girls they want, but the sunflowers.

I loved the way this play covered much the same story as the film, but brought out different aspects of the story. The lives of the other women came much more to the fore, and that gave it more balance. It was also easier to see how difficult it must have been in that small community to have made that choice and actually posed for the calendar. The performances were excellent, and it was more of an ensemble piece than the film. It’s not often now that a play really celebrates what it is to be human, warts and all, and I felt uplifted to have seen this tonight, as well as enjoying several lots of sniffles. As someone commented in the post-show, there just aren’t the dramas in any medium showing us these sorts of lives, or women of these ages and these backgrounds, and allowing them to have a voice. This one will fill that gap for many years to come, I’m sure.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me