Whatever you know about Frankie Howerd (google him, kids), you can probably easily imagine how a play would tick his biopic boxes. He had quite the career, spanning from the 1940s to the 1990s with the requisite ‘tears of a clown’ personal life to boot. Audiences, you’s expect, would be happy with a quick run through his major milestones and greatest hits. In creating Howerd’s End, the show’s writer and star Mark Farrelly clearly had little interest in doing something that simple. Instead, his text is incredibly ambitious. As well as give us Howerd, it takes on damaged love, sexuality, trauma and, towards the end, the soul and very nature of the cosmos itself. We are thrown into an avalanche of existential commentary and philosophical musings. It all sits uneasily with the work of one of our favourite light entertainers. This reviewer longed for something slower, calmer and more direct.
It is also a meta show. The fourth wall is dispensed with through a functional, if slightly on-the-nose, device. We, the audience, are visiting Wavering Down, the Howerd residence on the last day it is open to the public. Within this theatrical world, the cast also magically direct the action. In a move that occasionally feels forced and unnecessary, sound effects and lighting are driven by a theatrical wave of the hand. It is all done with charm, yes, but it is difficult to shake the slight feeling of pantomime.
The narrative is presented as a literal ghost story. Frankie is back from the dead to haunt his long-term lover, Dennis Heymer, and relive their traumatic relationship. There is a heavy touch of exposition before we are whisked, that panto hand wave again, from scene to scene. Some vignettes work better than others. A trip to the Borneo jungle to entertain the troops is probably the most memorable. Frankie’s therapeutic LSD trip sticks in the mind too. There are, of course, extracts of stand-up comedy but anyone expecting a variety show will be disappointed. This is mostly dense psychological stuff.
The good news is both actors take it all in their stride. As Heymer, playwright Farrelly is at his best as the cheeky young Sommelier who chats Frankie up at The Dorchester. He looks so dapper and has such a spring in his step, he feels moments away from donning top hat and tails and giving us a number. As the main man himself Simon Cartwright captures all the required mannerisms and vocal ticks but also brings appropriate angst and depth when required. Compelling throughout, it is not his fault he seems a little too young and fresh-faced to play Howerd later in life.
Good old Frank has the final word as the show closes. In a neat gag that fans will enjoy, this takes the form of a badly timed prologue. There are similar moments that raise a smile. Howerd’s End is, overall, an affectionate portrait of a deeply troubled man. I am a bigger fan having seen it. On that level, the show must count as a success. The overwrought writing, however, just lacks the lightness of touch it needs to get us tittering along with the great man which seems a shame.
Written by: Mark Farrelly
Directed by: Joe Harmston
This show completes it current run on 31 October. Details of this and future shows at the Golden Goose can be found on their website.