Sign of the Times (Tour – Oxford)

Sign of the Times, a new comedy by Tim Firth of Calendar Girls fame, is an engaging piece that deals with the art of achieving happiness in unpredictable times – a fitting subject for our times. The script was genuinely amusing, at times even laugh out loud funny, touching and very human. Set on a Yorkshire rooftop, the play opens with Frank, an installer of giant display letters, delivering life advice to work experience student, Alan. However, he aspires to be quite another kind of man of letters only he lacks the literary talent whilst Alan does not seem to possess any kind of ambition at all. As the two bond at 60 feet and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frank has been made redundant, he comes to realise that he has as much to learn from his young companion as he has to teach. Throughout, the dialogue is fast-paced and the interaction between the two characters heartfelt and warming.

The second half joins the characters five years later when they meet again unexpectedly as Alan, now a glib salesman, interviews Frank for a job. The play was originally written as a one act play and this quickly becomes apparent as the added second act is certainly weaker, less well structured and closes with a rather twee ending. It loses some of the character-focused charm of the first half and resorts instead to somewhat farcical plot devices to bring in the laughs. Nevertheless, laugh we did.

Tom Shaw dealt well with Alan’s development over the five year jump, but leaned too heavily on the stereotypical image of the gormless teenager in the first act, delivering caricature rather than character. Stephen Tompkinson, however, was superb as Frank. Verbose and preaching, yet warm and ruefully comic, he made Frank both intensely sympathetic and very believable.

All in all Sign of the Times is a great evening’s entertainment and well worth a look. As any acutely observed comedy should, it tugs at the heartstrings, tickles the funny bone and makes us think about what we truly want in life.

– Alice Fletcher