Writer: Mark Farrelly
Director: Joe Harmston
At various points in his professional career, comedian Frankie Howerd planned on several occasions to retire and set up a pub with his partner Dennis Heymer, to be called “Howerd’s End”.
But that retirement never really came; whenever it came close, a new generation of audiences would become entranced by Howerd’s risqué, seemingly bumbling but perfectly planned monologues and on he would go.
The impact of Howerd’s longevity on his relationship with Heymer is a minor aspect of their dynamic, which in Mark Farrelly’s play is explored as a spectral vision when Howerd (Simon Cartwright) visits an older Dennis (Farrelly) for some closure between the two.
As the actors bounce between different stages of the couple’s lives together, from their first meeting when Dennis was a sommelier and cocktail barman, Farrelly’s script exposes Howerd’s internalised homophobia – Howerd never escaped the notion that his sexuality was a perversion, having grown up long before decriminalisation in 1967 – by contrasting it with his partner’s acceptance and emotional stability.
There are scenes with Cartwright mimicking Howerd’s routines, of course, and in these he excels. His impression of Howerd is largely sublime, although on occasion slips towards either Terry Scott or Gavin and Stacey-era Alison Steadman, but in the main he captures Howerd’s precision flustering to a T.
But the real meat of the play is the offstage relationship between the two men. Farrelly’s Heymer is supportive and loving, desperate for his lover to return his affection and devotion; instead, the one true display of positive emotion from Howerd to his partner is swiftly followed by an act of violence, as if to invalidate it as quickly as possible.
But while we get glimpses of Heymer’s personality through Farrelly’s writing and performance, even offstage the true star is Howerd himself. His hatred of his own sexuality – which manifested in promiscuity while out on the comedy circuit, and in later life with weekend-long binges on LSD in the hope the star would discover some way to not be gay – makes Howerd’s story much deeper than the usual “tears of a clown” tale.
And it is these moments, when the performative mask slips, that Cartwright gets a real chance to shine, to be more than a very good mimic of one of Britain’s most recognisable comic voices. For Howerd’s End is a warning cry to anyone who has struggled with accepting themselves. Farrelly allows Howerd some peace and personal reconciliation, several years after his death; for those still here, how important it is to find the same in life.
Continues until 31 October 2020