A lot of love has gone into this imagined duet between Frankie Howerd and his lover Dennis Heymer.
Anyone who loves Frankie Howerd can be reassured that he is well looked after here
Frank (as he preferred to be called) is dead, of course, but no less mannered and entertaining for that, and such is the skill in the writing that we, sitting here in the dark, get to understand how you could fall in love with this sweet, damaged man and end up pretty damaged yourself.
The writing is a risky mix of introspective monologue, set piece stand up, impassioned dialogue and flashback re-enactment, with performances that morph to fit. Frankie Howerd offers a huge amount to pack in here. Oo er, oh no don't.
Luckily the performances are so extraordinarily accomplished and assured that we are pretty much held, somewhere between laughter and despair, while the bittersweet love story of Frankie and Dennis unfolds. Simon Cartwright as Frankie Howerd has a difficult task which he accomplishes impressively. He plays the heart of a man best known for his exuberantly mannered exterior and I think we do get to see it beat. Having said which, we also get some little chunks of Frankie in stand up mode and Cartwright makes more than a decent fist of Howerd's unique ooing, erring and “oh no don't missus” comic wraparound.
Mark Farrelly, who writes as well as playing Dennis, is the most charismatic of performers. It is hard to watch anything else on a stage around him, even if it is Frankie Howerd. Herein is where I have something of a challenge with the production. It is not often that a great script, about a fascinating character, performed by two talented actors amounts to a challenge. But I have a strong feeling that this would – and possibly should – have been a one man play, had Farrelly thought he had any sort of a chance playing Howerd himself.
Added to which, albeit both performances are beautifully crafted, there is absolutely not one whiff of chemistry between the two. This has a couple of powerful repercussions. Firstly, the play never really lives, it is very much a performance, however accomplished that performance might be. Secondly, the direction calls for a lot of pauses. When there is chemistry, it impregnates those pauses. When there is no chemistry, the pauses are barren. This emptiness is exponentially exacerbated by the sheer amount of physical space created by socially distanced audiences. The quality of both acting and writing is such that our hour with the star crossed couple onstage is always engaging and fascinating, and, in turns, hilarious and tragic. It just doesn't quite 'live'.
There is a third talent onstage, that of Venus Raven. The flashback action frequently relies on razor sharp timing with a palette of sound : a cocktail being shaken, sugar lumps falling into a coffee, a match being struck for an offered cigarette. This results in some exquisite audiovisual moments.
Anyone who loves Frankie Howerd can be reassured that he is well looked after here, so come and see him. Anyone who thinks he is just a big old camp poofter in a badly fitting suit is in for a huge change of mind, so come and see him.