I know it’s rude to draw attention to a person’s age, but the fact Ian McKellen has racked up five major stage performances in the four years since he turned 80 – ‘Hamlet’, ‘The Cherry Orchard’, ‘Hamlet’ (again), ‘Mother Goose’ and now ‘Frank and Percy’ – is nothing short of astonishing. The erstwhile Gandalf is the David Attenborough of the theatre world, seemingly exempt from the usual rules of ageing.
And despite the fact that he seems most comfortable working with his regular director Sean Mathias, there’s something mightily impressive about his willingness to put his vast cultural capital to use in a new play.
Ben Weatherill’s ‘Frank and Percy’ is a largely charming comedy-drama about two elderly dog owners from Yorkshire: McKellen’s Percy, and Frank, played by fellow national treasure Roger Allam. Meeting one day in Hampstead Heath, the duo take to scheduling their walkies together. They’re lonely, apart from their canine pals: the prickly Percy is apparently divorced; Frank is widowed. Idle chats turn into a friendship that largely seems pragmatic until Percy lets slip that his ex was a man. An invitation to come back to Percy’s for lunch turns into something rather more charged.
Though the way Allam’s sweetly guileless Frank exposits his way through the process of coming out as an older bi man does feel a bit didactic, it’s also undeniably delightful to see a passionate senior love story. And for all the giddily uplifting scenes of the pair preparing to attend Pride or going to karaoke, a lot of the charm comes from the droll humour of them still being grumpy old men - the scene where McKellen’s Percy moans about Viagra is a treat. It’s also a strength of Weatherill’s writing that he can tell a relatively uplifting tale while making it clear that it’s really hard to start a new relationship when you have a lifetime of baggage: the challenges they face aren’t anything to do with their sexuality, but rather their extreme difficulty in changing as people.
There is, it has to be said, a totally bizarre subplot about Percy being… some sort of climate change conspiracy theorist. Exactly what he believes in is never made entirely clear, but during the course of the play, he attends a dodgy-sounding conference in America, gets banned by Durham University, and releases a book that Frank clearly feels uncomfortable with. But this is all oddly breezed through and seems to just be there as a bit of background colour for Percy. It’s difficult to see what Weatheskill is really trying to achieve with it.
Still, put that out of your mind and it’s a cracking play, crisply directed by Mathias. There are no big speeches or attempts to make this a valedictory showcase for McKellen. Instead it’s two of our greatest actors flexing their comedy muscles and Yorkshire accents. Allam is sweet and openhearted, McKellen is spikey and horny; they’re lovely performances, not grandstanding ones. It’s a very cosy play in a lot of ways, but the venerable duo’s big, end-of-first-act snog feels quietly radical.