Golden Goose Theatre
Reviewed – 29th October 2020
“merges a fascinating exploration into a secret and devastating relationship with an exciting throwback to classic comedy”
Frankie Howerd is no doubt one of Britain’s best loved comedians, his comic career spanning six decades in the twentieth century. Most Brits can’t help but titter (pardon the pun) at the comedian’s endless stream of double entendre, and his distinctive cries of ‘no missus’ and ‘please yourself’ are instantly recognisable.
However, despite his incredible notoriety, Howerd led an extremely private life, hiding his potentially career-destroying homosexuality from both his audience and his mother. Recent documentaries have shed a light on his personal relationships, most notably, his four-decade-long love affair with his manager Dennis Heymer. Howerd’s End, directed by Joe Harmston, explores their tumultuous relationship through the eyes of Heymer, whilst also affording a glorious opportunity to encounter Howerd in full-flight stand up mode.
The play begins with Heymer (Mark Farrelly), now well into his 80s, welcoming the audience to their tour of Wavering Down, the Somerset home Heymer shared with Howerd until his death in 1992. Heymer laments the unspoken words between him and his late partner and wishes they had had more time together. Luckily for Heymer, the ghostly spirit of Howerd (Simon Cartwright) soon appears before him, cracking jokes and delivering bumbling prose as in his prime.
What follows is a selection of key moments in their relationship, from the pair’s initial meeting at the Dorchester Hotel where Heymer was a Sommelier to Howerd’s therapy room where he was plied with LSD to cope with his depressive state. The audience is shown a very different side to Howerd’s stage persona, instead encountering a man who is deeply unhappy and the consequent destruction he wreaks on those close to him.
Cartwright does a fantastic job at mimicking Howerd’s iconic mannerisms, from his pursed lips to his twitching hands. The snippets of stand-up that he delivers are some of the best scenes in the show, and his playfully teasing back and forth with the audience is excellent. Farrelly is compelling as the conflicted but devoted partner, and moves between several different roles, including Howerd’s therapist, with ease.
After a whistle stop tour of the pair’s relationship, the play dissolves into philosophical musings about life’s purpose and the tired trope of the unhappy clown. Though clearly applicable to the situation, these conclusions are brought to the forefront with no degree of subtlety and would have been better received had they naturally arisen from scenes between the clashing couple. Furthermore, it would have been a welcome contrast to see Howerd and Heymer in private, when their relationship was young, to invest the audience fully in their downward spiral.
The set is nicely decorated, with a red chair and pouffes placed around a fireplace and a portrait of a young Howerd decorating the overmantel. The sound design is very well-done, with sound effects of lighters flicking over and drinks being poured perfectly timed to the action on stage. The lighting is strong too, cycling through different colours and intensities to match the mood of any given moment.
Howerd’s End merges a fascinating exploration into a secret and devastating relationship with an exciting throwback to classic comedy. However, the addition of more personal scenes, rather than grand philosophical musings, would not go amiss.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Steve Ullathorne
Golden Goose Theatre until 31st October
Previously reviewed at this venue: