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Sign of the Times

Tim Firth
Hull Truck
Hull Truck Theatre

Sign of the Times

Tim Firth’s play Sign of the Times started life in the mid 1980s as a one-act piece Man of Letters—his first play—commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn for the Stephen Joseph Theatre Studio in Scarborough.

Firth discovered that the Studio was more of a pensioners’ cafe with a raised dais at one end of it and that his task was to try to distract the customer—however briefly—from their lunch. The image of two men placing a giant T on the rooftop of a newly opened Tesco as he was waiting on Scarborough station for the train home provided the ‘steer’ for his commission.

Man of Letters re-emerged a few years ago as Sign of the Times, a full-length play now revived by Hull Truck Theatre with a magnificent design by Dawn Allsopp—a far cry from its humble origins.

Despite its main house treatment, Sign of the Times remains at heart a simple play about the aspirations and thwarted ambitions of two men: the older, philsophical Frank (Andrew Dunn), an electrical engineer loyal to the company for whom he has worked for 35 years and the taciturn, awkward Alan (Edward Cole), a resentful, Twix chomping trainee.

As they fit the new electric letters for Frank’s beloved employer ‘Forshaws’ on the roof of the building, the garulous Frank pontificates on procedures and work ethics, frequently punctuating his lengthy discourses with the phrase ‘In life’—much to his colleague’s annoyance. All to no avail, sadly, as we see that Frank’s life—as well as that of his colleague’s—is in the hands of economic forces beyond the reach of even their mighty employer.

The second half sees a reversal in roles as well as fortunes as, four years later, it is Frank who is now approaching Alan for a traineeship in the new multi-national.

Andrew Dunn, a Hull Truck stalwart since the early 80s, is in fine form as Frank as he shifts from superficial and talkative confidence to world-weary and self-loathing, failed novelist; never indulgent, Dunn gives the kind of understated, subtle performance filled with understanding those of us who have watched him for years have come to expect.

He is matched by Edward Cole who wonderfully displays the truculence of the teenage trainee transformed in the second half into the assistant deputy manager, spouting the company mantra with desperate and ultimately unconvincing enthusiams. His is an energetic, comic yet deeply-sensitive performance.

Nick Lane directs with a similar sensitivity, realising the moments of comedy, yet not allowing the undoubted pathos of the play to languish into sentimentality. He never allows the bond between the two characters to become too cosy; there is an edge to their camaraderie, rooted in anger and disillusionment rather than a desire to be mates.

For all its charm and subtle humour, Sign of the Times ironically feels like what it is: a play from a bygone era. The times have even overtaken the multinationals featured in the play, as employees of Comet will testify; there is something clumsily anachronistic about references to YTS (the Youth training Scheme of the 1980s).

Essentially this is a one-act chamber piece that doesn’t really substantiate its revision into a full-length play. It’s worth seeing for the performances and the quality of production but it’s very much a first play from a playwright whose reputation has been forged from subsequent and better work.

Reviewer: Richard Vergette