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Review: Frank and Percy (The Other Palace)

Review by Sam Waite


People watching is a fascinating hobby – you get to observe what complete strangers do, maybe invent narratives, either mundane or fantastical, for the pairings and groupings that seem to occur. The question of, “I wonder what it is they’re chatting about?” is at the heart of Frank and Percy, Ben Weatherill’s play now running for a limited season in London’s Other Palace theatre. Transferring from Theatre Royal Windsor with its legendary stars in tow, Weatherill’s charming show proves you’re never too old to make a new connection, or to fall in love.

The titular duo meets while letting their dogs get some exercise, and over time build a friendship based on casual interactions and shared loneliness outside of these excursions. With Percy having left his husband (in name but not in legalities) some twenty years before, and Frank being widowed for the past four years, the two become the major relationship in each other’s lives, and things gradually lean towards the romantic as we follow them through an indeterminate (maybe months, maybe years) length of time.

Old friends Roger Allam and Ian McKellen star, Allam a three-time Olivier winner who has appeared in work ranging from Les Misérables to Game of Thrones, and McKellen a star of stage and screen, having wowed in Shakespeare and won young fans as Magneto in the X-Men franchise and Gandalf in adaptations of Tolkien’s work. Both, unsurprisingly, do stellar work in Frank and Percy, bringing both genuine warmth and richly layered sadness to these older characters who have many regrets behind them.

Weatherill’s script is well balanced, allowing the characters plenty of development and personality without sacrificing their emotional depth. His dialogue sounds like conversations and debates a people-watcher could realistically imagine these two older gentlemen in the park, a café, or a restaurant are having, and the romantic element is allowed to build slowly and with the appropriate delicacy. Smarter than to force a situation to demand exposition, Weatherill lets us learn about Frank and Percy at an easy, natural pace, utilising the fact that they are still getting to know one another. Admittedly some plot beats are more predictable than others, but there’s a refreshing newness to the typical coming out love story being focused on an older couple, who already have their own layered histories.

Allam and McKellen’s dramatic prowess won’t come as a surprise to most who visit, but there’s still a sense of wonder at watching two actors so in command of their craft sharing the stage. Both are also very funny, whether selling bold, brazen jokes or giving dry cutting reactions to whatever foolishness the other has demonstrated. An absolute joy sweeps the audience when the characters, and the actors, are allowed to let loose and have fun on stage – scenes preparing for Frank’s first pride parade and at a drunken karaoke session are a delight, and hearing Ian McKellen say, “Me and my imminent erection will have a marvellous time,” reminds us just how filthy and funny the older generation can be.

Directed by Sean Mathias, the production has a light, breezy quality in its earlier scenes, allowing a real impact to the growing intensity of some pivotal plot developments. Mathias knows that he has two first-rate actors leading the play, so doesn’t feel the need to rush over lengthier conversations or try to skip past anything we may find extraneous – they’ll make it land, and he has enough confidence to let the script and performances breathe. Perhaps the strongest praise I could give to Mathias’ work is how little can be said about it – everything is so smooth, so natural, that he has shaped the work into something truly organic.

Simple but incredibly effective, Morgan Large’s stage design utilises The Other Palace’s onstage revolve to transform the park benches into the café, the restaurant, Percy’s home, and a hospital waiting room. The back wall separates to allow more of the leafy backdrop to be seen, telling us whether we are surrounded by walls, seeing through windows, or stood outside, and the illusion of theatre has us believe that the characters are wherever the projected scene heading says they are. These projections introduce each scene as if it were the next chapter of a novel, offering an easy-to-follow guide to our place in both the world and the narrative, and couple with Nick Riching’s lighting to clarify location and rough time of day.

Along with Richings, whose overhead ring light provides much of the lighting, the handful of settings are also aided by Andy Grahams sound design, keeping us aware that the dogs are playing just out of view, or that there is traffic quietly passing. When any change to Large’s costumes or sets is required beyond the aforementioned revolve or opening wall, McKellen and Allam make these changes themselves – this is a true two-hander, with the emotional and physical state of either character dictating how they move chairs, add or remove layers of clothing, or remove previously discarded clothes from the stage. This choice helps to soften the occasional bluntness transitioning in and out of some of the more serious, potentially upsetting scenes – the bluntness seems to be deliberate, but is no less jarring for this.

A sweet, well-constructed story about building new relationships later in life, and about coming to terms with one’s past and the feelings or ideas never explored, Frank and Percy is a real joy to behold. Benefitting greatly from both the talent and the reputations of its stars, the play deserves a long life but will struggle to find two actors as well-suited to these characters, who McKellen and Allam play as if they were new and organic moments, rather than the beats of a play. Frank and Percy is touching, tender, and a lovely evening at the theatre.

Frank and Percy plays at The Other Palace until December 17th.

For tickets and information visit

Photos by Jack Merriman



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