Over twenty years ago, Tim Firth wrote a one-act play, Man of Letters, set on a Batley rooftop and Sign o the Times is the finished, two act version, the performance staged over several days at Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal. The production found an audience responsive to this sardonic, funny commentary on the world of work and corporate speak by two characters who inspired sympathy but not pity.
Firth’s Sign of the Times is a simply staged two-hander where Frank (played by Robert Gill) and Alan (played by Thomas Pickles) are faced with both their past and their future when they meet up at their place of work on two occasions, five years apart. Frank discovers that the world has moved on without him whilst Allan can see in Frank, himself in thirty years, should he become a well trained company man.
Avoiding the temptation to go after an easy emotional response, director Karen Simpson keeps a tight rein, ensuring that the story retains a wry pathos and wit as it depicts the growing self awareness of both men. We see a world of employment, ambition and thwarted dreams from the perspective of an older man coming to the end of his three decade long working life and a teenager staring at the yawning maw of the same. Both teeter on the edge of a tower block, peering at a world far below that goes on oblivious to them. Yet their lofty position, roped to the top as they install illuminated letters, slowly affords them a perspective that they would otherwise (it is implied) have lacked. In the distance, on a high hill, stands a tall folly, built by a wealthy man with no need to ever work for a living and this too has been altered over time, by vandalising hands bearing spray cans and a need to make their mark on the world.
A simple and compact set, beautifully realised by Lucy Sierra and perfectly suited to this tiny Georgian theatre achieved the neat feat of reflecting the two act play with its double sided design. The upper floor office and outside ledge with fire escape where Frank attempts to engage Allan in the fine art of electrical installation was reversed in Act Two to show the offices inside, five years on, with Allan this time as the trainee assistant manager, inducting former company man, and the now unemployed Frank.
The plays apparent simplicity belies the skills required to handle the demands of such a script, relying heavily upon the growing rapport between the two men, good timing to ensure the humour does not appear knowing or arch and a competent use of the body in such a confined space. Nonetheless, despite the confines of the set and the circumstances of both men, their imagination, hopes and dreams did not appear suffocated, but, we hoped, only postponed. As a consequence, we left feeling hopeful rather than defeated.
Tickets are available from the Theatre Royal.