New play about the pained life of much-loved comedian Frankie Howerd is a moving, funny and poetic hit.
As a child I was drawn to Frankie Howerd whenever I saw him on TV. The 'titter-ye-not ooh err missus' muddle master sounded like nobody else I'd ever heard. I was hooked and I wasn't alone. He remains a fondly remembered but much misunderstood figure almost 30 years after his death in 1992.
'Howerd's End', written by and starring Mark Farrelly and directed by Joe Harmston, invites us into the private world of this secretive celebrity who hid his homosexuality from family and audiences alike. The story of his long-term partner and business manager Dennis Heymer has never been told. Until now.
In what feels like an affectionate nod to Dickens, Heymer (played by Farrelly) is visited in his dressing gown by the Ghost of Frankie Past. It works perfectly to transport the audience back in time to bring to life the turbulent story of a 30-year relationship.
Simon Cartwright's Frankie moves beyond impersonation to capture the pained complexity and self-loathing of a man struggling with life and love. His physical resemblance certainly helps but it's the unmistakable verbal tics he delivers so brilliantly. At the play's outset the stand-up routine sections created much tittering in the opening night audience but as we learned more about the men behind the act the laughter lessened and a more sombre mood took over.
Farrelly captures the torn and desperate Dennis Heymer in a performance of great power. From their first meeting, when Heymer was a sommelier at the Dorchester Hotel, to the later years when he took Frankie to his weekly sessions with a psychiatrist, what emerges so movingly is the struggle to love freely and live openly. It's a struggle many gay men still recognise despite decriminalisation in 1967 and marriage equality in 2014.
"I died too but they forgot to bury me," cries Heymer to the ghost of his dead partner in one of many moments which transcends sexuality and speaks to the universal nature of love and loss. 'Howerd's End' is a fond and beautifully written love letter: in telling the full story of Francis Howard and Dennis Heymer it honours both men in moving, funny and poetic style.
Howerd's End is playing at the Old Joint Stock Theatre from 6th to 10th October 2021.