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Frank and Percy, The Other Palace review - two-hander fails to escape a very short leash | reviews, news & interviews

Frank and Percy, The Other Palace review - two-hander fails to escape a very short leash

Frank and Percy, The Other Palace review - two-hander fails to escape a very short leash

Ian McKellen and Roger Allam as the lonely men who bond over their dogs

Ian McKellen and Roger Allam in 'Frank and Percy'Jack Merriman

Two elderly men meet in the park while walking their dogs, and become friends. Even when friendship turns to love, the hounds tend to dominate the conversation. It’s hardly the most scintillating set-up for a play.

I wanted to like Frank and Percy more. It stars two of our most accomplished and personable actors; it’s quite amusing; and it carries sweet messages about friendship, love and the ability to surprise oneself later in life. And yet, dramatically, writer Ben Wetherill and director Sean Mathias offer little more than a soft-centred character study that doesn’t break free of its limitations.

It opens on Hampstead Heath, where Percy (Ian McKellen) approaches Frank (Roger Allam) for a chat, while their dogs play in the distance. Frank, in his 60s, is a retired history teacher and widower. Though a decade older, Percy still works as a sociology professor and writer; he’s also single, having recently ended a long gay relationship, a detail that is revealed to Frank only after the two men have extended their meetings from the Heath to a local cafe. 

Both are Yorkshiremen, but beyond that they’re chalk and cheese. Frank is serious, straightforward, unassuming, still recovering from his wife’s sudden death from cancer; Percy confident, funny, much more on the front foot. Put another way, Allam is the straight man, and McKellen gets most of the good jokes. 

When Percy reveals his homosexuality, along with an interest in his new friend, it comes with the play’s one surprise: Frank’s admission to previous gay feelings and his openness to a male lover. But that’s as dramatic as it gets. Hereon, Wetherill simply offers some steps and occasional conflicts on a relationship trajectory: Frank’s introduction to Pride; the failure of Percy’s latest book (which posits him as an unlikely climate change denier); an accident to one of the dogs; illness. 

The result of all this is an odd combination of contrivance and inertia, mixed with self-indulgence. The positive gay theme will obviously be close to McKellen’s heart, but his shamelessly playing to the gallery as Percy embraces his wardrobe changes and dance routines for the upcoming Pride break the evening’s tentative hold as a piece of drama.

McKellen is, still, McKellen: sly, mischievous, able to shade Percy as both a vain diva and a lonely man who sensitively guides his friend into newish waters. “Who could know that a ham and egg sandwich would be such an aphrodisiac,” he quips, while parking his Viagra-induced erection in response to Frank’s initial caution. Yet, from Bent to Waiting for Godot, he and his director have enjoyed far more fruitful collaborations. 

The evening’s strongest card is Allam’s quietly sublime performance. Lending Frank a bruised dignity and unapologetic ordinariness, he creates a portrait of a man who grows in stature as his sexual identity finds a new dimension and as, too, he gets the measure of his petulant new lover. 

Morgan Large's stepped timber stage (accompanied at times by appealingly verdant rear projection) allows the action to segue from the park to numerous interiors with minimal fuss. We don’t see the dogs, of course, but they are expertly evoked through barks and yelps and the actors’ skilful interaction with the wings. 

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