What is funny and what is not very much depends on your point of view. The appreciation of comedy is not something that can be defined objectively. Put 10 people in a room together and you're likely to have a dozen different views - at least - about how funny something might be. So, it's no surprise that some comedy shows work, and others do not. But on this occasion, opinion was surprisingly universal.
Watching the first night of this re-worked comedy by Tim Firth, I thought I had gone to the wrong show until I realised that the rest of the audience weren't laughing either. In fact, during the entire hour of the first half, only a handful of people actually laughed. And there were cavernous, almost endless periods when no-one in the audience made any sound at all.
The story is one that Tim Firth has been working on for 20 years, apparently. It starts on a factory rooftop in Batley where installation engineer Frank is teaching Alan - a young man on some kind of work experience scheme - how to erect illuminated signs. Somehow the letters seem to have got messed-up, because Frank assumes they will spell-out the company name. While Alan is searching for the right letters, Frank, a wannabe writer, dictates bits of his latest spy novel into a portable recording machine. Cue mispronunciation of Russian words, titles such as 'The Spy Who Went into the Warm' etc. Oh dear! In the second half, the roles are reversed. Alan is now 'Trainee Deputy Assistant Manager' in an electrical store, advocating client-focused promotional activities and brainwashed with management-speak acronyms. Frank is now one of the long-term unemployed who has to get Alan to sign his work experience assessment form.
'Sign of the Times' stars Matthew Kelly as Frank and Gerard Kearns as Alan who is making his début appearance in the West End. Both do their best but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, 'the contract is too large'. A veritable herd of comedians would find it hard to get laughs from what is a trite and misconceived plot, and which resorts to platitudes such as 'As a society, we reap what we sow' and comments such as 'Basic people watch TV with their mouths open'.
It does pick up somewhat in the second half, but not in a way that has everyone suddenly rolling in the aisles. Yes, a few more people laughed, and at one stage a lot of people laughed. But by that juncture I suspect the audience were desperate to laugh at anything, or delirious. I'm not sure which. What I am sure about is that the author may well need to spend the next 20 years or so reworking his script, because the current version is dire.
"A desperately slight, whimsical piece that tries to get by on a few good jokes."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Woefully under-powered...A disappointment."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Over two hours in Peter Wilson's pleasant production it looks over-extended."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard