- Written by Tim Firth
Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds
then touring, Rose Theatre, Kingston & The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
- Directed by Karen Simpson
Designed by Lucy Sierra
Lighting by Zigy Jacobs
Production Management by James McKenzie
|" ...the true test of a play is when it can hold a full theatre spellbound with just the power of the writing and the performances of the actors, happily this beautifully staged production is just such a show. "
THEATRE ROYAL, BURY ST. EDMUNDS (then touring) - 2015
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.
Whats On Stage – Anne Morley-Priestman 2015
In life, reality doesn’t always match up to the dreams and expectations of young people setting out on a career. Sacrifices and compromises have to be made along the way to support yopur family and pay the bills but hopefully everyone is able to shape their world enough to come out on top in the end.
Tim Firth’s Sign of the Times is a show about just such a conflict of ideas. It’s a simply staged two-hander which introduces us to two very believable people who are both at a crossroads in life.
Firth’s comic drama is a timely look at employment from the perspective of a young work experience lad, Alan, and the 50 year old manager, Frank, who after 30 years at the signage company Forshaw’s slowly discovers that the world and his firm have moved on without him.
The touching drama explores the relationship between the two men and director Karen Simpson firmly resists the temptation to allow the characters to wallow in self-pity and instead seeks out the truth and the comedy to be found in life and unrealised dreams.
Robert Gill as Frank and Thomas Pickles as Alan seize the opportunity to bring to life a pair of quirky individuals that avoid the pitfalls of caricature. These are both men you want to spend time with and you realise as the play unfolds that both have talents which are not being utilised by their work.
Happily, this is not a play to linger on maudlin sentimentality, Tim Firth is too clever a writer for that, as evidenced by his work with Calendar Girls and last year’s This Is My Family, but he is a thoughtful playwright and inbetween the laughs and the witty observations, Sign of the Times asks some timely questions about the changing nature of employment.
Modern theatre can have a lot of glitzy embellishments: be it spectacular lighting displays, moving sets, explosions or dazzling audio-visual displays but the true test of a play is when it can hold a full theatre spellbound with just the power of the writing and the performances of the actors, happily this beautifully staged production is just such a show.
EADT24 - Andrew Clarke 2015
Modern theatre can have a lot of glitzy embellishments: spectacular lighting displays, moving sets, moments of dazzling audio-visual enhancement, explosions, dry ice, trap doors and all sorts of slick tricks which can wow an audience. But the true test of a play is when it can hold a full theatre spellbound with just the power of the writing and the performances of the actors.
Tim Firth’s Sign of the Times is just such a show. It’s a simply staged two-hander which introduces us to two very believable people who are both at a crossroads in life.
Firth’s comic drama is a timely look at employment from the perspective of a young work experience lad, Alan, and the experienced 50-year-old manager, Frank, who discovers that the world and his firm have moved on without him.
The touching drama explores the relationship between the two and director Karen Simpson firmly resists the temptation to allow the characters to wallow in self-pity and instead seeks out the truth and the comedy to be found in life and unrealised dreams.
Robert Gill as Frank and Thomas Pickles as Alan seize the opportunity to bring to life a pair of quirky individuals that avoid the pitfalls of caricature.
The set by Lucy Sierra is a simple double-sided design of an upper-storey office, showing the exterior in the first half and then reversed to show the inside, five years later, in the second.
A beautifully staged show about the modern workplace.
Verdict: A touching and witty look at life, reality and unfulfilled dreams in the modern workplace
THE STAGE – Andrew Clarke 2015
- Written by Tim Firth
Hull Truck Theatre, Hull
- Directed by Nick Lane
Designed by Dawn Allsopp
Music Compose by Tristan Parkes
Lighting Designed by Tim Skelly
Sound Designed by Amy Clarey
- Written by Tim Firth
National UK Tour
- Directed by Peter Wilson
- Designed by Morgan Large
Sound: Gareth Owen
Lighting: Tony Simpson
- Written by Tim Firth
- Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London
Directed by Peter Wilson
- Designed by Morgan Large
Sound: Gareth Owen
Lighting: Tony Simpson
Written by Tim Firth (A Man of Letters - originally in 1991 as a one act play)
Directed by Peter Wilson
Designed by Morgan Large
This was the first ever play for Alan Ayckbourn's
Stephen Joseph Theatre.
- Tim was asked by Alan Ayckbourn
to write a studio
play and showed him the studio which was also the theatre restaurant,
full of old ladies eating soup round tables. He came up with
play that was about putting letters on side of a building thinking
it would mean the actors would legitimately have to shout, (to
be heard over the slurping of soup) and you can't ignore a red
five foot high letter F so they'd have to turn round.
- Of course he didn't realise that
when a play was on, the slurpers turned all the chairs round
and made it into a theatre. But by then it was too late and Man
Of Letters was written.
- The commission came about
when Connal Orton, who eventually directed it, gave Alan Auckbourn
a student play of Tim's called Tale Of Two Yukkas - possibly
the only play ever to star two people and two talking houseplants
- Alan Auckbourn wasn't sure about the play but liked the writing.
A Man of Letters
FRANK - Jeffrey Chiswick
ALAN - Gary Whitaker
FRANK - Geoffrey Hughes
ALAN - Des O’Malley
Sign of the Times
Starring, Matthew Kelly and Gerard Kearns
Starring, Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw
Starring, Andrew Dunn and Edward Cole
Like the recession itself, award winning Cheshire-based writer Tim Firth’s feel good comedy Sign Of The Times is making its own riotous return.
Originally commissioned by Sir Alan Ayckbourn in 1991, then entitled Absolutely Frank, the re-written show sees Frank Tollit – played by Stephen Tompkinson – trying to find happiness during a time of economic cutbacks.
Photo: Alistair Muir
Tim Firth spoke exclusively to the Chronicle before the play hits the Liverpool Playhouse on its national tour next week.
He said: “People might think it was written with this recession in mind but it is simply the way things have fallen in to place.
“It is a play I wrote in Scarborough in the early 1990s. I remember Alan Ayckbourn showed me where the play would be presented, it was a cafe, full of pensioners eating soup.
“I went away to the railway station in Scarborough panicking. I thought: ‘It is going to have to a play where people shout, and where there’s something big, and physical’.
“While I sat there I saw these two men putting up a Tesco sign on a new supermarket. I thought ‘you can’t miss a six foot high letter S, and if you are on a roof of a building you are going to have to shout. Then gradually it started to come alive.”
Sign of the Times follows Frank, an electrical installation engineer for a commercial lettering company, who has spent 25 years putting up giant letters on buildings. But his true ambition involves letters of a very different sort – writing novels.
“It is a comedy about what I think is the greatest question of all – achieving happiness,” added Tim.
The production reunites the Calendar Girls writer with former Ballykissangel star Stephen Tompkinson after they shared award winning partnerships with All Quiet On The Preston Front and The Flint Street Nativity.
Tim said: “I haven’t worked with Stephen Tompkinson since we did the TV adaptation of The Flint Street Nativity. It is a massive role and Stephen is a fantastic actor. The great thing about him is he hears the music of comedy. He has an interest in comedy and I never have to explain a line to him.”
“There’s something welcoming about the Playhouse because it genuinely is a play house, it’s very friendly and feels homely. It is a beautiful theatre to play to where the people are interested in comedy, they come to want to laugh and that is what the play will give them. It’s a bit different to the Scarborough cafe too,” said Tim.
from the Flintshire Chronicle April 2009
HULL TRUCK THEATRE
There is an affectionate familiarity about Hull Truck’s latest in-house production on the theatre’s main stage. Sign of the Times is a revived Tim Firth play and it bears the trademarks of gentle comedy and well-loved characters that we have come to expect from the writer best known for Calendar Girls and The Flint St Nativity. A two-hander between “installation manager” Frank (he puts up signs on buildings) and his somewhat reluctant apprentice and younger counterpart Alan (he’s on work experience – because he missed the deadline for Emmerdale), Sign of the Times is a play for today, despite being first written 20 years ago.
Opening on the rooftop of a factory, Firth’s premise of worlds colliding in an unlikely way is set and the first half plays out much as we might expect. Despite an initial – and mutual – distaste for each other, the two men gradually find themselves bonding over their shared purpose to erect a neon sign, battling missing letters, mistaken spellings and misunderstandings as they go. If the concept is predictable, however, the performances are not. Edward Cole, regular member of local theatre company and Hull Truck’s Associate Company Middle Child, shines as a teenaged Alan, as awkward and uncomfortable as we were at that age, without losing the joy of being young and having fun. Cole is coupled well with Andrew Dunn, a familiar face from TV, who puts in a nuanced performance as a man who seems to be watching from afar as his dreams and past seem to disintegrate. The moments when either one of them is alone on stage are imbued with a very real and very tender sense of character and vulnerability, as Frank recites his latest attempt at a crime thriller and Alan dreams of playing Wembley.
Both actors make the transition well to the second half, where the action fast-forwards three years to the management office of an electronics shop, where Alan now trains the unemployed Frank in how to sell toasters and microwaves. The shift is well aided by Dawn Allsopp’s revolving set and if the second half packs a few less laughs than the first, this is necessitated by a shift in tone. With Frank now on JSA and Alan a faceless customer sales personnel, there is a melancholy here alongside the humour that captures the heart of the play: the twists and turns of human happiness.
A sweet and subtle play that, under Nick Lane’s direction, is thankfully never allowed to turn bittersweet. With their complementing partnership full of gentle and genuine comedy, Dunn and Cole tell with emotion a story that is as sombre, uplifting, reflective, hopeful and contradictory as life itself.
Laura Turner - A YOUNGER THEATRE - 2013
SIGN Of The Times used to be called Absolutely Frank, having begun stage life as the lunchtime play A Man Of Letters in the refectory at the old Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
It formed Tim Firth’s first commission for Alan Aycbourn in 1991, when the novice playwright thought he would be competing with the clatter of cutlery, so his short play placed two men high up on a ledge, where they would need to shout to be heard.
Firth’s talent for characterisation, stings in the tale in his plot and comic dialogue with a big heart were immediately present in the rough charm of the original work.
He then added a more refined second act and the first change of title at the SJT in 2006, while retaining the vertiginous office-block setting.
Absolutely Frank has latterly toured as Sign Of The Times, and now comes a further tweak since your reviewer last saw Firth’s chameleon comic drama at Harrogate Theatre in March 2009. More of those ever-changing Signs of the Times later.
At the heart of both acts is Frank (York actor Andrew Dunn), an “installations operative” who has clocked up 25 years assembling signs on buildings for an industrial northern company, but ironically doesn’t see the writing on the wall for his future.
As outwardly perky and prone to giving prosaic advice as John Shuttleworth, Frank has his neatly ordered sandwich box, his list of lessons in life, his pride in his work and his dreams of seeing his name in letters on book covers, if only he could write better spy novels.
Inner sadness is masked by bonhomie that covers for his paucity of literary skills and his passing years, but he is sparked up by being thrown together with an initially monosyllabic teenage trainee for a day, Alan (Edward Cole). Subtly, Firth gradually shifts the balance between them to amusing effect because Alan can read him like a book.
The second act on Dawn Allsopp’s revolving set picks up Frank’s story when he is older, still struggling to write a good story and looking for work. It is his turn to be undertaking his first training day at the electrical store that has replaced his former employers.
In the 2006 premiere, comic friction came from accident-prone Frank testing the patience of a procedure-and-acronym obsessed store manager for the day called Gavin. Now that desperate-to-impress novice manager is Alan, and the comedy works better for creating the reversal of roles from the first act.
In the hands of Edward Cole, the second-half character is no longer a caricature and becomes a stronger conduit for Firth to have a dig at modern management regulations. Dunn is back on fruitful comic terrain after the weird world of iShandy at York Theatre Royal, his Frank full of pathos in this straitened, redundancy-fearing age of downsizing and management not valuing experience.
Cole and Dunn make for a classic ebb-and-flow double act, peaking with a typically Firth slapstick scene to lightens the blows of a play that is more pertinent than ever under Nick Lane’s astute direction.
THE PRESS - Charles Hutchinson - 2013
There aren’t many dramas which capture as honestly, or as amusingly, the struggle towards happiness. For Frank, it’s the distant - very distant, judging by his purple prose - dream of becoming a spy novelist. And for Alan it’s about making sense of his place in the world, as bewildering as that seems for a teenager on a YTS placement.
Hull Truck’s revival - set at the Humber Valley Business Park - is a sharply funny staging of Tim Firth’s play. Alongside its humour, Nick Lane’s production brings out the sadness and sweetness of two misfits - equally bamboozled by life - who find themselves lumped together at work.
Andrew Dunn brings a warm weariness to the role of Frank, an ageing sign-maker, who is landed with a young assistant. There’s something heroic about the character who, repeatedly knocked back on his writing ambitions - “I’m crap”, he confesses to Alan - continues to pursue them. But that, Firth’s play suggests, is the half the battle. It is Alan who despite having talent, can’t bring himself to do anything with it. As the younger of the duo, Edward Cole provides a layered performance as the disorganised youth. His transformation - from the eccentric teenager of the first act to the aspiring worker of the second - is a delight. Dawn Allsopp’s revolving stage design, with its brightly illuminated, giant letters, complements the tale of two men rushing about in circles.
Will Ramsey - THE STAGE – 2013
Norwich Theatre Royal
After a hard-day's work staring into a computer it was quite refreshing to view something live on stage and see a real person - but in this case persons - as Tim Firth's engaging new comedy centres upon two likeable characters living their working lives very close to the edge while enjoying the 'high life' at the same time!
As the curtain rises we meet them immediately. Frank Tollit (played furiously funny by Stephen Tompkinson - Drop the Dead Donkey, Ballykissangel and Brassed Off) and Alan (played by Tom Shaw - The Inbetweeners and Skins) are staggering about 60 feet in the air awkwardly installing a large illuminated sign on a crummy old north Yorkshire office block overlooking an equally-crummy shopping complex.
Frank's the company's senior fitter and feels happily and gainfully employed but harbours a wish of becoming a spy novelist while Alan portrays a bored work experience YTS lad dreaming of rising to the heights of fame by becoming a rock star.
Both actors fitted their roles perfectly while possessing excellent delivery and timing so crucial to the play's pace, rhythm and success. And judging by the capacity audience's reaction last night it's a sure-fire winner. They loved every minute of it.
Tompkinson had the audience in stitches time and time again especially in a classic scene in which he offered his worldly and professional advice to his young charge who was, up to a point, completely disinterested. But never be fooled by a youngster!
But the pupil always outstrips the master and so it was in this case. The young Alan proved to be not the bored and dim YTS worker as earlier thought. He possessed well-found opinions but just like Frank he comes close to becoming a cropper.
As the play progresses Alan, looking dapper in a smart whistle and flute housed in his new office on the top floor with sliding doors, climbs the ladder of success and promoted to a manager's job. But does he want it? He now puts Frank through his paces in a reversal of roles but good old Frank fights back in his strict Yorkshire manner.
The interplay between the two never lets up for one moment and they're simply delightful to watch. A host of marvellous comic scenes throughout this cleverly-written play kept the audiences' strict attention particularly when Alan uneasily works a flip-chart while another sees the deuce caught up in the middle of one of their letters in a sketch that Laurel and Hardy would, I think, approve of. The audience roared!
Originally commissioned as a one-act piece by Sir Alan Ayckbourn in 1991, the play has got a strong local connection inasmuch as its director and producer is none other than Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.
So, if you want a damn good laugh, grab the opportunity.
Tony Cooper - Norwich Evening News - 2012
SIGN OF THE TIMES - Liverpool
THIS bittersweet comedy by the writer of the Calendar Girls is the fourth time Stephen Tompkinson has worked with its author Tim Firth so it’s not surprising he knows how to get the best out of the script.
Tompkinson is touching as Frank Tollit, the expert in fixing words to buildings but who struggles to place them together in the gripping spy thriller he so longs to pen.
The role could have been written for his archetypal brand of pathos – combining gentle humour with emotional charge – but instead began as a character from a one-act piece commissioned by Alan Ayckborn in 1991.
Warrington-born Firth extended it into a full length play in 2006, enabling it to end on a more up-beat note than the original.
In the first act, Tollit is the proud head of electrical installation for a commercial lettering company who is looking after a teenager on work experience. In the second, the tables have turned and it is Alan (Tom Shaw) who is in charge of Frank, under a back-to-work scheme for the long-term unemployed.
The stage set is also spun around during the interval – with the ledge upon which they are placing the letters at the outset later positioned outside Alan’s new office. Not that there is any need for fancy scenery with such a cleverly composed script exploring questions we all ask ourselves about our choices in life.
Fortunately Firth does not attempt to provide any two-dimensional answers or tacky soundbites, and the play ends not so much with a neatly wrapped-up resolution as on a hint of optimism.
Shaw comfortably meets the challenge of playing the same character at two different stages in life, with some of the teenager’s traits creeping into the personality of the trainee manager.
A delightful script and thoughtful acting make this a timeless piece of theatre.
Laura Davis - The Liverpool Daily Post
SIGN OF THE TIMES - Liverpool Playhouse
It was Cameron Mackintosh that once said that you see the best in a production after it had been re-written three times and that's exactly what Tim Firth has done with this production.
Originally commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn for the Stephen Joseph Theatre as a one act play, Firth has revisited the production and made several changes to it since its birth eighteen years ago.
Sign of the Times (previously known as Absolutely Frank) takes us to the roof of Forshaws an Outdoor Sinage production company and into the life of Frank Tollit, Cheif Installer for Forshaws for 25 years. Frank has taken on a 15 year old Work experience student Alan, who would rather do his own thing (or so it seems) than to listen to Frank.
Firth's script has his usual trademark of witty lines and incredible human interaction that at times has you howling with laughter and at other times deeply saddened by the events that unfold in front of your eyes, especially touching at the pivotal moment of Act 1. Firth has created an interesting premise for the piece for the second act which is certainly the act with the most laughs - one would love to tell you what happens but wouldn't be able to without giving the plot away (I just hate it when reviewers do that!)
With the action taking place on a brilliant set designed by Morgan Large, director Peter Wilson has been able to craft a production that flows with pace and energy which allows the laughter to come freely but also gives the audience the freedom to sit back and think on the more human aspects of the relationship between Frank and Alan, with some clever touches and physical comedy sprinkled throughout you are never left looking at your watch or wanting the production to end.
What really makes this show sparkle is the onstage chemistry between Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Tom Shaw as Alan, they definitely bring the best out of each other.
Thompkinson's portrayal of Frank is one of the most touching performances I have seen in recent times, and Shaw really comes into action when his character is given a much meatier plot in the second half and is quite sublime in his comic prowess.
If this production comes to a theatre near you there really is one thing to do...and that's book your ticket now before the chance to see one of the best plays to have hit the stage fades away like the lights on top of Forshaw's roof.
John Roberts – the public reviews
- Written by Tim Firth
- Originally written as a one act play produced by Stephen
Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
- FRANK - Jeffrey Chiswick
- ALAN - Gary Whitaker
- Directed by Connal Orton
- Designed by Juliet Nichols
- The original Frank was Jeffrey Chiswick
who used to be Maureen Lipman's husband in the old British Telecom
- The original letters are still held at the Stephen
Joseph Theatre and are hired out to amateur productions to this day...
film version for BBC schools SCENE series was made with Keith
Barron and Sean Maguire... (left - A scene from the television MAN OF LETTERS)
- The original play is available in print
- SAMUEL FRENCH: ISBN 0-573-04227-6
Scripts, CDs and DVDs of Tim Firth's work are available.