“An insight into genius, a glimpse of the dark matter cushioning every star, a sense of a love that dared not speak its name, but spoke instead in a quiet and gentle whisper.”
Full disclosure. My credentials as an impartial reviewer for anything connected to the brilliant Mark Farrelly are zero. I’m a huge fan. I’ve been reviewing him since EdFringe ‘12 when he appeared in Roy Smiles’ ‘The Lad Himself: A Celebration of the Life of Tony Hancock’. I’ve seen both his solo shows, and was part of the team that helped bring them into print. Earlier this year I urged the renaming of our little arts thing from Edinburgh49 to GetYourCoatsOn based on a throwaway comment Mark made in an interview with Karl Steele, manager of the Town and Gown. You have been warned.
We enter to find Farrelly nursing a drink and a bevy of grievances large and small. Here is Dennis Heymer, the oh so secret other half of the late, great comedy legend Frankie Howerd. Remembered chiefly as an established mainstream mainstay, Francis Alick Howard, OBE (1917-1992) was the first in that line of non-conformist comics who progressed through the latter half of the previous century. Howerd was followed by the Goons, who were followed by Beyond The Fringe, who were followed by the Pythons, who were followed by Izzard.
The great strength of this script is that one really doesn’t need to know very much about Howerd’s life to comprehend the drama. Celebrated comedian (40yrs) walks into a bar behind which is a sommelier (28yrs). A spark is kindled between them that will burn light and dark down the discrete decades together. Theirs was a romance set in a time when same-sex relationships, especially life long bonds, were still the love that dared not speak its name.
As Frankie Howerd, Simon Cartwright skillfully treads a tightrope in a performance that remains both recognisable and real without falling into simple caricature. His Howerd is a sympathetic, gentle giant, a little boy lost in a sexually-abusive past, adrift in a secretive and uncertain present, complacent about the Christmases yet to come. It’s a quietly powerful performance that grows louder in the remembering.
As Dennis Heymer and several other characters, Farrelly brings his A-game – that mix of pace and pathos of which he is a master. On stage he is a unique blend of considered spontaneity, obvious vagueness, and resolute indecision. Nobody else presents ultra real people on stage quite as well as Mark Farrelly.
There is a third presence on the stage in this two-hander. June Mendoza’s portrait of Howerd hangs above the mantelpiece throughout, a silent witness to the drama unfolding between the corporeal Dennis Heymer and the ghost of his dead soulmate. The pictures sets the sartorial standard which Cartwright’s costume follows exactly, from the cut of his lapels to the narrowness of his tie. This play is an animation of Mendoza’s capturing in oils of her sitter’s ambiguity, calm, and resilience.
This was an early performance of a production much delayed by the COVID crisis. There were faults and unforced errors. The scene of the characters’ first meeting is not blocked well. Farrelly’s impersonation of Peter Cook needs fine tuning and amplifying. A potentially pivotal final moment, in which the departing Howerd puts Heymer’s smoking jacket back on is lost to the audience by Cartwright’s physical bulk along with a chance to see Heymer reflected in Howerd’s eyes.
Farrelly fans, including this one, will not come away disappointed. They will leave with a trove of theatrical treasures that will shine alongside his past performances. They will gain an insight into his method through the addition of a second performer, one skilled and talented enough to more than hold his own alongside the chic sheik of the solo script. For those of us less familiar with Howerd himself, we will gain an insight into genius, a glimpse of the dark matter cushioning every star, a sense of a love that dared not speak its name, but spoke instead in a quiet and gentle whisper.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell