Sign of the Times, explains writer Tim Firth, grew out of two separate one-acts – and that is its strength and its weakness. On the one hand each act is neatly self-contained with a credible anecdotal twist at the end; on the other Act One sets up more interesting characters and potential situations than Act Two delivers.
In Act One, Frank is Head of Installation at a signage firm who finds himself looking after an uninterested youth trainee, Alan. They have to erect a large illuminated sign on a wind-swept balcony and the act (I am tempted to say the play) is in the tradition of young and old coming to an understanding, conventional enough, though sufficiently idiosyncratic to amuse and convincing enough to believe.
An undercurrent of doubt about the firm and Frank's position (he is given to Willie Loman-ish assurances, always a bad sign) grows throughout the act.
Andrew Dunn, as always, carries conviction as Frank, bringing out his humanity alongside his pedantry and loquaciousness, though the fact that he writes spy novels, much advertised beforehand, goes for little – not the actor's fault, I think. However, it is Edward Cole's performance above all that lifts Act One: the role of the sullen uncommunicative teenager who reveals unexpected goodness and intelligence is not new, but Cole brings out the quirkiness superbly, giving a detailed, sympathetic and amusing performance.
Act Two, four years later, has a nicely ironic role reversal, but doesn't do much with it. Essentially it's a sketch about modern business-speak, the young manager who doesn't quite believe it and the older man whom it reduces to verbal clumsiness. Added to that are some incidental links to the characters as they were in the first Act and a contrived farcical development. Dunn and Cole still work effectively as a team, but without the pre-interval spark.
Nick Lane's direction is economical and sure-footed, Dawn Allsopp's designs, dictated by the text, work well, and Sign of the Times proves a pleasantly undemanding entertainment.
- Ron Simpson
Sign of the Times continues at Hull Truck until 20 July 2013