'Frank & Percy' review – Ian McKellen and Roger Allam are charming company in this sweet love story

Read our four-star review of Frank & Percy, starring Ian McKellen and Roger Allam, now in performances at The Other Palace to 17 December.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

There are two parallel love affairs going on in Frank & Percy, the sweet if slight two-hander from Ben Weatherill that looks sure to charm people during its extended run at The Other Palace.

The first is the love affair that unfolds over 22 scenes between two dog-lovers, Frank (Roger Allam) and Percy (Ian McKellen), who meet on Hampstead Heath only to discover they share more than an affection for canine company.

Even more palpable is the performers’ self-evident pleasure in being in one another’s presence. McKellen, now 84, is a particular surprise, returning more or less annually to the stage as if finding sustenance in the mere fact of performance.

Just when you think each stage appearance may well be this actor’s last – McKellen is pretty much alone amongst the Englishmen of his generation in continuing to tread the boards – he springs up once again, his enthusiasm possibly more evident now than it was when I first saw him on Broadway in Amadeus over 40 years ago.

You have to wonder, too, whether Weatherill, the young author best-known prior to this for his 2018 Bush Theatre entry Jellyfish, isn’t paying homage to McKellen’s own career in the Heath setting that dominates here. The veteran thesp had a career-best triumph in London and on Broadway in No Man’s Land, the Harold Pinter play in which two men of a certain age also meet al fresco in that same parkland.

The action here unfolds gently across two acts that could be profitably trimmed to one. On the other hand, sufficiently assured are Allam and McKellen, the two so at ease with one another, that you begin to feel after a while as if the script may simply be a pretext for allowing them a shared laugh eight times a week, their audience delightedly looking on.

In some ways, the writing recalls a gay variation on such onetime Broadway standbys as The Gin Game and Same Time, Next Year: a relationship glimpsed over time at key flash points. The difference here is an occasional candour to the language that is of a piece with McKellen’s separate career as an activist, and a scene of Percy in full Pride regalia seems tailor-made less for him. (An ever-spry McKellen delivers Percy’s more risqué remarks with a glee at once mischievous and endearing.)

We glean a fair amount about their two dogs, whose yelps punctuate Andy Graham’s busy sound design even as Morgan Large’s tiered wooden set takes us indoors to restaurants and doctors’ surgeries as the men’s rapport expands and enlarges over time. (The programme bios are all about the creatives’ histories with dogs – or not.)

Frank, the more indrawn of the two, is a widower making peace with the loss of his beloved wife, Alice, whilst coming to terms with a same-sex attraction that, he deduces, must make him bisexual. Percy makes frequent reference to an unseen partner, Dennis, and to a daughter living halfway around the world whose life he is reluctant to encroach upon – much to Frank’s gathering consternation. You could imagine a far tougher handling of this story, but that would require different dynamics than are here in place.

It seems of a thematic piece with the play, for instance, that the director, Sean Mathias, is McKellen’s onetime partner and ongoing collaborator, which testifies to the sort of bond over time valued by the play. I don’t know if I’d run to see Frank & Percy in less expert hands. But the present company makes it an experience worth treasuring even as you wonder just when the indefatigable McKellen will return to the theatre once again.

Frank & Percy is at The Other Palace through 17 December. Book Frank & Percy tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Frank & Percy (Photo by Jack Merriman)

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