According to Wikipedia, a stellar collision is the coming together of two or more brightly burning astronomical elements caused by chemical dynamics within a star cluster, or by other mechanisms not yet well understood. If the two stars merge slowly enough, they can create a new, brighter star called a Blue Straggler. Back down to earth (in theatre terms, at least) writer Ben Weatherill’s brand new play Frank and Percy – starring UK theatre legends Roger Allam and Ian McKellen in the titular roles – is most definitely a Blue Straggler.
Ostensibly urbane, out-and-proud professor and author Percy meets straight-talking, Yorkshire-born widower Frank randomly, while walking their dogs on Hampstead Heath. Percy’s Labrador Bruno and Frank’s spaniel Toffee strike up a rapport far faster than their owners do; initially, there are few similarities between Frank and Percy apart from both of them being of a certain vintage that makes small-talk about hearing aids and hip ops the most obvious and likely common ground. But every common ground has multiple layers of depth beneath the surface and eventually, across several chance encounters, Frank and Percy discover that they share far more similarities than their initial conversations about Bruno and Toffee’s habits and foibles may suggest.
Director Sean Mathias has clearly allowed space for Allam and McKellen to weave their own, authentic selves into Weatherill’s vividly authentic characters and beautifully-constructed script; when Allam delivers a devastatingly brutal one-liner, or McKellen’s eyes start to twinkle in readiness for a rejoinder, it’s difficult to see where the long-term, off-stage friendship ends and the hard work of making stage magic happen begins. That magic is played out against Morgan Large’s sleek, semi-revolving set, all clean lines and clever lighting evoking a cafe, or a restaurant, or Percy’s flat, or a karaoke bar, or a surgery waiting room, starting, finishing and interspersed against a striking 3D-image of the verdant greenery of parkland.
Allam is a gorgeously guileless, deliciously deadpan Frank, his slowly-revealed layers of grief, loneliness and regret hidden beneath an armour of sardonic rebuttals and occasionally mordant observations. Proving that old adage regarding how opposites attract, McKellen brings an abundance of joy and wisdom to the role As Frank’s candid, uninhibited sparring partner, only clamming up and shutting down when eventually forced to acknowledge his frailties… and in the words of England’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden, love is the noblest frailty of all. Tearjerker alert? Oh, far from it!
There’s plenty of playfulness amidst Frank and Percy’s moments of poignant pathos, and heaps of hijinks beneath the heart-wrenching undertow (the highly naturalistic drunken karaoke scene in particular being a case in point here), while the build-up to Frank’s first Pride march proves that fast-paced comedy timing comes as naturally to Allam and McKellen as the subtle art of giving each other’s characters space and time for silence and unfinished sentences.
Frank and Percy’s relationship moves along at the gentle pace of, say, an Anne Tyler novel or an upper-echelon sitcom rather than following a harum-scarum race to denouement. Overall, their/Weatherill’s story is a compassionate circumstantial comedy-with-depth celebrating the value of companionship and the meaning of love beyond a certain age, or beyond a certain way of thinking or, in fact, beyond certainty about anything at all, resulting in a stellar collision… with dogs, an unforgettable gag (literally!) about a cucumber and a scene that leaves you craving a proper lemon slice made with properly thick lemon curd all combining to confirm its Blue Straggler status.
Frank and Percy is at the Theatre Royal Bath until 5 August. Visit theatreroyal.org.uk for tickets