Ben Weatherill’s third play heads into London after doing the rounds in Bath and Windsor.
Frank and Percy is a gentle comedy laced with cock jokes, drunken karaoke, and rainbow hotpants.
And to think it all started with dog-walking on Hampstead Heath!
Our two characters are OAPs, both academics. Frank (Roger Allam) is a widowed former history teacher “put out to pasture” while Percy (Ian McKellen) is a sociology professor still chipping away at work in the climate change field.
What brings them together is loneliness. I found myself reminded of the 1993 film Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, which also featured a friendship between seniors written by someone much younger. There, though, the friendship was definitely platonic.
For Frank and Percy, love is in the air as cautious Frank slowly, cautiously, begins to open up his heart to new experiences. He’s crushed on a man before, but this feels different, freeing, and comfortable.
Out and proud Percy is petulant, changeable, and unapologetically horny, with a regular Viagra prescription to set against his usual pills.
With Morgan Large’s set of wooden ridged shapes (and occasional revolve) suggesting everything from the heath and a restaurant to Percy’s house and a cemetery, the focus is rightly and squarely on these two veteran actors.
McKellen plays to the audience for laughs, and each quip is warmly received, as is an act one costume change to reveal a “some people are gay, get over it” t-shirt. In his late career, he has earned the right to be outre after all that serious Shakespeare. Think Vicious writ large.
Allam is a more reflective actor, seemingly doing little but offering a touching and believable portrait of a man whose only joy is overfeeding his spaniel, Toffee (sibling of the late, lamented, Sauce).
The dogs, of course, are off stage, with their occasional barks acting as accompaniment to any awkward silences as these men progress a friendship and relationship.
Two hours plus may be a little indulgent for material which is rather slight – if delightful to watch – but as we progress through disagreements, health scares, family estrangement, and complex LGBTQ pasts, there is enough to keep the interest.
The chemistry between McKellen and Allam, old friends who last worked together two decades ago in Aladdin, is very strong. They clearly also have a synergy with director Sean Mathias (once McKellen’s romantic partner, now close professional collaborator).
If you have seen Allam as Albin in La Cage Aux Folles, then his hotpants won’t be a surprise, and his Frank snogs Percy with the gusto and desire we rarely see associated with older characters.
This is a star turn two-hander that offers reflective moments and all-out laughter.
Image credit: Jack Merriman