There’s an internet-Twitter-memey-thready-thingamy that poses the question: what things when older generations were growing up, are incomprehensible to those born in the 21st Century? This play – If You’re Glad, I’ll Be Frank – is full of them. Take “Button A” and “Button B”: remember them? If you do you weren’t born yesterday. You used to put your money into the bulky black contraption on the wall of the telephone box – four pence – and dialled. If you got an answer you pressed “Button A” and your pennies dropped and you were connected. If there was no answer you pressed “Button B” to retrieve the coins. My Mum taught me to go round the telephone boxes in Victoria Station and press the “Button B’s” in case callers had forgotten to retrieve their coinage – which they often had: the street-savvy equivalent of today’s ten-year-olds dealing in Bitcoin, I suppose.
But these Buttons, and the receivers (handsets) fixed by thick cords to the wall, and the wall-to-wall Bakelite, make this little gem a fascinating social commentary, an authentic historical document: if your kids have to do a project on Telecommunications Through the Ages then this play would be a valuable resource.
It’s one of a number of short plays penned by Tom Stoppard in the early part of his career. Albert’s Bridge, After Magritte, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and The Real Inspector Hound are all, like Glad ’n’ Frank, intensive
verbal-jousts which show Stoppard’s love of linguistic pyrotechnics combined with an exploration of social mores. Gladys Jenkins is the speaking clock which her estranged husband, bus-driver Frank, calls up and he recognises
her voice. He then spends the play trying to get past the Kafkaesque GPO wall of bureaucracy to effect a reunion. (GPO – General Post Office, the forerunner of BT. In case you were wondering.)
Theatre of Heaven and Hell gives us a lively, fun and fast-moving production that never has a dull moment. The cast treat Stoppard’s words with the kind of flippancy of which the playwright himself would approve but they keep a
weather eye on the darker theme of the piece – that of loneliness in a fast-changing world: we now know, of course, that the pace of change back then was glacial compared to our modern smart-phone synchronised society.
Sarah Day-Smith is superb as the prim-and-proper Gladys, telephonist to time Lords and Ladies everywhere. Her demeanour lurches from startled rabbit to maudlin WTF? am I doing here moroseness – the original human robot – a concept that has just as much resonance today as back then. Lost, panicky Frank (Nicholas Bright) is the antithesis of an Alpha Male – a character created by Stoppard long before the popular concept of human Alpha Males had been invented. Brian Eastty gives good moustache-slip as the Porter and Jake William Francis provides solid company support in various roles: at one point Francis decamps to the audience, finds a seat behind me, rests his legs virtually on my shoulder and then screams drum-shatteringly into my ear: thanks Jake. Darren Ruston is suitably Lordly and chauvinistic as First Lord and we have a wonderful set of cameos from the delightful Elena Clements, all giggly/girly/vacuous/looking-over-specs-condescending-secretarial as occasion demands.
Director Michael Ward ensures that the energy never flags as the company romp through the script sometimes at farce-pace. And although Gladys’s solitudinous soliloquies grab at our heartstrings there’s always a laugh just
around the corner.
Ward and Producer Angela Loucaides have designed a set with a Salvador Dalí motif going for it – a large melting watch drips down the back wall, the iconic red telephone box is fading away at the edges and old-style, disembodied ’phones dangle from the ceiling: it’s a kind of Persistence of Bakelite. As for the speaking clock I’m amazed to discover that despite the persistence of Breitling and Rolex and Apple and i-Pads and our modern-day propensity to check our smart-phones every few seconds the Speaking Clock still exists: the number is 123, any time day or night says BT, and its 45p a minute (and ten seconds…)
It’s a pity that this delightful show is over so quickly – The Hen and Chickens in Islington is a bit of a trek for a running time of 30 minutes. Theatre of Heaven and Hell might have thought about adding one of those other
Stoppard mini-classics – After Magritte, say, would work well with this – to make it a more complete evening’s entertainment. £8.00 a pop, I would tentatively suggest, is a little steep for half an hour, even accounting for all those extra seconds.
Review by Peter Yates
Theatre of Heaven & Hell return after winning this year’s Stage Door Camden Fringe Award with an absurd, satirical look on man’s servitude to time and the clock.
Not performed on stage for over thirty years – Tom Stoppard’s “If You’re Glad, I’ll Be Frank” tells the story of Frank, a young man convinced that his long-lost wife is the speaking clock.
Enter a true Stoppardian world where all characters are completely governed by time and urgency with the underlying question of whether we are all indeed trapped by the clock.
Hen & Chickens Theatre
109 St Paul’s Road
London N1 2NA
10th to 14th October 2017