'Chalk-and-cheese duo': Robert Gill and Thomas Pickles in Sign of the Times
'Chalk-and-cheese duo': Robert Gill and Thomas Pickles in Sign of the Times
© Keith Mindham

Sign of the Times is not a new Tim Firth play; it was initially called Absolutely Frank and I saw it for the first time in 2008 at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. Over the years it's changed quite subtly, though the plot core remains constant.

This is deceptively simple. A middle-aged man with years of experience in his job encounters a reluctant work-experience teenager; they meet again under apparently very changed circumstances five years later.

If Frank (Robert Gill) seems at first to be a curmudgeonly little caesar, over-secure in his long-term job of erecting illuminated signs in Batley, he soon reveals another side to his character. Frank yearns to write a best-seller with big-screen potential, something in the style of John Le Carré or Frederick Forsyth.

Alan (Thomas Pickles) may have left school with minimal qualifications and be doing as little as he can to ensure that his unemployment benefit continues. But he can draw very well and is a leading member of a band which has cut its first disc.

We soon realise that this chalk-and-cheese duo actually have much more in common than they're prepared to admit. Karen Simpson's production balances the different levels of humour - situation as well as character based - so that our sympathies sway with each new revelation, just as those of Frank and Alan themselves change.

There's a good set design by Lucy Sierra and a cleverly unobtrusive soundscape by Jon Nicholls. But it's the actors who have to carry us into their world, with its everyday blend of the mundane and the new-surreal. This, the pair - Gill in both acts and Pickles particularly in the shorter second - manage superbly.

Sign of the Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 31 January. It then plays the Rose Theatre, Kingston (3-7 February) and New Wolsey, Ipswich (24-28 February).