There’s a popular Scottish sitcom, called Still Game, in which two elderly gents while away their remaining years with only each other for company. Ben Weatherill’s new play Frank and Percy, now playing at Theatre Royal Windsor and directed by Sean Mathias, has a similar premise, and while it’s just as much a comedy it also touches on the more contemplative and touching side of what friendship can be.
The pair meet on the heath while walking their respective dogs. Frank (Roger Allam) is a widower and a retired teacher, Percy (Ian McKellen) is a still working professor, about to publish a new book. They begin chatting, as people in Britain often do, about the weather, their families, and jobs.
As the meetings become more frequent the friendship begins to solidify. At first glance this is an odd-couple type set up, Frank more uptight than Percy’s flamboyant nature, but soon similarities start to appear. When Percy casually mentions his ex-husband lives just up the street, Frank (who was married to a woman) barely flinches, and simply accepts Percy for who he is.
Unexpectedly, the relationship does start to move to a more romantic one. Frank confesses he’s been in love with a man before and Percy starts to treat him more like a life companion than simply a friend. What Weatherill has rather cleverly done is keep this aspect of the relationship very nuanced and subtle, so this doesn’t feel like a ‘gay play’ it’s very much a play about friendship and the different points on the spectrum of companionship.
Allam and McKellen have superb chemistry on stage. Allam does what he does best, keeping a straight and expressionless face while McKellen is more animated in his approach. The pair have razor sharp comedy timing, and they need it because this is a wildly funny play. Percy tells anecdotes about a man who choked while deep-throating a cucumber, Frank only chipping in to further accentuate the hilarity.
At times, there’s hints of McKellen’s character from Vicious, with one-liner put downs that have the audience in stitches. It works well because while Frank and Percy explores the idea of friendship, it doesn’t shy away from those aspects that can often end friendships; Frank and Percy argue, they disagree, and often they irritate each other, and this all unfolds very naturally.
Running at two hours, it could have been a long old slog for a two-hander, but Weatherill keeps the play feeling fresh throughout; the scene in which the pair prepare for Frank’s first Pride parade is genius, and although it often feels like we know where the story may be going, this script continues to surprise us right up until the very end.
Morgan Large’s set design feels modern, with wooden benches that move and rotate to create the many different locations in which the action takes place, the backdrop too, changes as required but all of it is designed to keep the focus on Frank and Percy.
Frank and Percy invites us in to the lives of two men who only have each other, through their ups and downs they remain an important part of each other’s lives and as such we see the value of friendship, no matter how late in life it might develop. Funny, heartfelt, and a truly beautiful piece of theatre.
Frank and Percy is at Theatre Royal Windsor until 22nd July