Simon Ward reviews Tom Stoppard's If You're Glad, I'll Be Frank at The Hen and Chickens
First things first. The setup of this play will be virtually incomprehensible to anyone under the age of about forty – it takes us back to the days when there was something called the GPO, which was in charge of the telephone service. Telephones, as demonstrated on stage, were heavy devices with rotary dials so that calling any number took forever and it was easy to ring the wrong number and have to start all over again. Hence the genius of the Post Office, once they realised that business could be increased if telephones were used for other things than simply making calls, to ensure that you only had to dial three numbers – SUN for the weather (based on the letters on the numbered dial… I did warn you), UMP for the cricket scores and, most famously of all, TIM for the speaking clock. That’s right, people used to phone a number to find out the precise time.
So much for the history lesson. This is an early Stoppard, originally a radio play broadcast on the Third Programme of the BBC on 1966, the same year as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Frank (Nicholas Bright) is a bus driver. He thinks that his estranged wife, Gladys, is the voice of the speaking clock, and in a Kafkaesque manner he keeps attempting to storm the bastion of the GPO to re-unite with her, to the loud chagrin of the conductress of his bus. Like all the characters, she is obsessed with time, in her case the bus timetable.
The forces ranged against him include the usual bureaucracy of porter, secretary and politicians – even when he finally reaches the Fat Controller-like First Lord (Darren Ruston) he finds himself ridiculed and humiliated. He even wonders in the end whether he wants to find his wife anyway. Somewhere in here is an embryonic satire on the fuddy-duddy Establishment and the new freedoms that the Sixties were bringing in.
Gladys is at the heart of the play, touchingly played by Sarah Day-Smith. She is placed here in a cage of telephones, reading out the time every ten seconds – a satirical parody of all the mind-numbingly dull jobs in the world. But it does give her the opportunity to philosophise on the nature of time, pointing out how absurd it is to obsess over precision when it comes to time. Time refuses to be constrained by the seconds and minutes into which we arbitrarily divide it, and the portion of time allotted to us is unknowable and in any case too short.
Theatre of Heaven and Hell have done great work in the past – I loved their Hamlet Part II in this venue – but this is not their finest. It is witty rather than funny; the struggle of Beryl is engaging but ultimately failed to move. The challenges of staging and doubling up of parts betray the origins of the work as a radio play. Overall it feels more like a sketch than a full-blown play, although there are hints of the great Stoppard to come.