Sign of the Times, Duchess Theatre

Frank has been Head of Installation at display signage company Forshaw’s for thirty five years, installing illuminated lettering on the side of other companies’ buildings while he dreams of becoming a world famous writer of espionage novels. The day he takes a teenager on work experience up to install the company’s name on its own building, though, both men’s lives are destined to change for ever.

Tim Firth (Calendar Girls, Neville’s Island, All Quiet on the Preston Front) has clocked up a reputation for being able to deliver a nice line in Northern humour that carries an undercurrent of sadness and regret. It’s a genre that’s dominated by Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, of course, but Firth deserves his place up there, especially on the basis of his latest West End play, Sign of the Times, currently previewing at the Duchess Theatre.

Matthew Kelly’s Frank is a creature of habit, yearning for the freedom of the successful creative novelist, yet painfully aware that his ability does not quite match his ambition. A man who yearns for immortality – though “not for ever,” as he explains to young apprentice Alan, in one of the play’s many fine one liners.

As Alan, Gerard Kearns starts off sullen and uncommunicative, but we soon realise that far from being a gormless, hoodie-wearing teenager, he is taking in the life lessons Frank is keen on expounding, and either adopting them or adapting them as befits the fearless nature of your average sixteen-year-old.

A rueful and rather thought-provoking conclusion to the first act is supplemented post-interval by a reversal of situations. Set three years later, Alan finds himself in the role of teacher, albeit one barely trained enough to do the job. Both Kearns and Kelly play the shifting relationship between the two men with a light touch, allowing Frank’s humiliation at finding himself back at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder to play well against Alan’s continuing need to see him as a mentor.

Both actors spark off each other as the comedy in Firth’s script bounces from the verbal to the physical. There is a real warmth to the interplay between them that helps accentuate the play’s message – that creativity needs an outlet, and if we can dare to follow our dreams rather than allowing ourselves to fall into a corporate rut, we too can achieve immortality. Not for ever, but for long enough.

Sign of the Times opens at the Duchess Theatre on March 11 and runs until May 28.