There is an affectionate familiarity about Hull Truck’s latest in-house production on the theatre’s main stage. Sign of the Times is a revived Tim Firth play and it bears the trademarks of gentle comedy and well-loved characters that we have come to expect from the writer best known for Calendar Girls and The Flint St Nativity. A two-hander between “installation manager” Frank (he puts up signs on buildings) and his somewhat reluctant apprentice and younger counterpart Alan (he’s on work experience – because he missed the deadline for Emmerdale), Sign of the Times is a play for today, despite being first written 20 years ago.
Opening on the rooftop of a factory, Firth’s premise of worlds colliding in an unlikely way is set and the first half plays out much as we might expect. Despite an initial – and mutual – distaste for each other, the two men gradually find themselves bonding over their shared purpose to erect a neon sign, battling missing letters, mistaken spellings and misunderstandings as they go. If the concept is predictable, however, the performances are not. Edward Cole, regular member of local theatre company and Hull Truck’s Associate Company Middle Child, shines as a teenaged Alan, as awkward and uncomfortable as we were at that age, without losing the joy of being young and having fun. Cole is coupled well with Andrew Dunn, a familiar face from TV, who puts in a nuanced performance as a man who seems to be watching from afar as his dreams and past seem to disintegrate. The moments when either one of them is alone on stage are imbued with a very real and very tender sense of character and vulnerability, as Frank recites his latest attempt at a crime thriller and Alan dreams of playing Wembley.
Both actors make the transition well to the second half, where the action fast-forwards three years to the management office of an electronics shop, where Alan now trains the unemployed Frank in how to sell toasters and microwaves. The shift is well aided by Dawn Allsopp’s revolving set and if the second half packs a few less laughs than the first, this is necessitated by a shift in tone. With Frank now on JSA and Alan a faceless customer sales personnel, there is a melancholy here alongside the humour that captures the heart of the play: the twists and turns of human happiness.
A sweet and subtle play that, under Nick Lane’s direction, is thankfully never allowed to turn bittersweet. With their complementing partnership full of gentle and genuine comedy, Dunn and Cole tell with emotion a story that is as sombre, uplifting, reflective, hopeful and contradictory as life itself.
Sign of the Times plays at Hull Truck Theatre until 20 July. For tickets and information, visit http://www.hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on?action=view&id=656.