Mark Farrelly as Dennis Heymer with a portrait of Frankie Howerd. Pictures: Jacky Summerfield.

Howerd's End

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham


In a sense it was all there: the stuttering, the wavering (the name of his beloved, welcoming, periodically lonely home in Somerset); the rapid fire delivery, the virtually cured teenage stutter, the pointing, the pondering, the angles and feigned stoops, the endlessly quick altering face, what looks like his reddish hairpiece, mobile tongue outside and prodding lower lips, hyperactive eyebrows and expansive hand gestures, ( “the way he sculpts the air”, as its writer Mark Farrelly beautifully puts it),  the playing upon, teasing his agog audience; the immaculate timing; the cheek, the daring.

The last is in some ways the most important. Farrelly - who wrote this innovative, wonderfully punchy play, which opened this week at The Old Joint Stock, and runs there till a 3.00 matinee this Sunday (Oct 10th) - has triumphed in acclaimed stageworks of a similar ilk: depicting the ingenious, affable and meticulously rehearsed Bob Monkhouse; the deliciously outrageous (and honest) Quentin Crisp, a personality made famous by John Hurt; and Patrick Hamilton, the novelist who embraced Marxism and then grew away from it - has come up with this splendid, unforgettable two-hander, oh so skillfully moved and directed by Joe Harmston, and masterfully lit, in which he himself also plays the boyfriend (more later).

As Mark Farrelly tells us, Howerd was “not just one of Britain’s best-loved comedians…” (for more than 50 years if you include his war service entertaining the troops – he took part, though not quite in the first wave, in the 1944 Normandy landings; 45 of them as an established postwar professional) … “but was in truth a radical, whose courage and innovation as a performer has too often been obscured by cosy nostalgia…He crafted stumbling, surreal streams of insecurity, based on his (own) sense of inadequacy, disappointment and (wait for it) sheer unsuitability to the very job of being a comedian.”

One penetrating line, from Dennis, is “Do you know who you are?” Not just the persona split, but a character torn in many directions. A joyous touch from Frank is “This is a bit deep, isn’t it?” Frank of course is himself as deep as they come.

The leading film site IMDB agrees wholeheartedly with Farrelly’s portrait: “He suffered from stage fright, a life-long debilitation, a lack of confidence, was painfully shy, and suffered from severe emotional conflicts, melancholia and deep depression.”

All of these lie at the very heart of, and at times marvellously and surreptitiously lurk beneath, the text and the performance. Farrelly’s own daring in concocting – devising - this frequently ingenious play is considerable. Barry Cryer, who knew both characters closely, has dubbed the play “brilliant”.

Howerd was born Francis Alick Howard (sic) into a more or less lower middle class family (son of a soldier), and became (note) a Grammar School Boy in Woolwich, near his South London home. The ‘Francis’ of course became a recurrent part of his act. Frank, which is how he was known to his friends, was scarcely ever introduced.

frankie Howerd

Titter ye not, Simon Cartwright is superb as Frankie


Teaching at Sunday school in his late teens possibly brought out the entertainer in him, as well as reflecting an involvement with, and constant passionate interest in, Christianity, something not primarily addressed in the script. He was devoted to his mother, as gay men often are; indeed that can be the start of, as he would put it, the “queerness”; the lifelong affliction.

This element, and his insuppressibly gay promiscuity before, seemingly even after, he met the love of his life, understandably stand outside the compass of this work.

The boyfriend was Dennis Heymer, 12 years Frank’s junior, whom he didn’t meet until the end of the 1950s, when he was around 40 and Heymer 28 (or some indicate 26). Heymer is played by the author himself, and in the role Farrelly produces a wholly consistent, and to assist the plot quite a fiery, figure.

After Howerd’s death in 1992 from heart failure, Dennis lived on in their home, Wavering Down, a further 17 years. Here at the play’s opening, during this solitary period, he is plagued by Howerd’s ghost, a bit like Scrooge and Jacob Marley. Things soon harks back to their moving first meeting. Dennis was then a wine waiter (he called himself a ‘sommelier’ - originally a French term); whether qualified or not, by 28 he must have known a fair amount about his occupation. 

This gives a chance to explore the best-known part of Howerd’s career as a comic, which had some major ups and downs, periods of nothing versus times when his agent’s phone was constantly ringing. A few films, including in the Carry On series, filled some gaps. We miss out on his sensational rediscovery by Ned Sherrin for That was the Week That Was, but get a delightful chunk of his ingathering by (especially Oxford) students which led to an ongoing longing – hunger – for his gags, his cackling audience-teasing and undergraduate-insulting, his pretend vulgarity, by a younger generation. The appearance Farrelly uses here dates from 1979, but this Howerd fad was already surfacing when I saw him do the same in 1969. 

If Dennis, and their intense, highly charged and here combative, relationship, is almost equally central to the play – and his loyalty amid all this is quite clear (though he is shown once or twice as in some respects, or potentially, bisexual) - Farrelly naturally makes Frank, fabulously captured by Simon Cartwright, the prime figure.

Cartwright’s performance, acclaimed in Edinburgh and London, is such a staggering revelation, we almost feel Howerd himself is before us, especially close up in the intimate atmosphere of Birmingham’s Old Joint Stock.

Frankie and Dennis

Frankie and Dennis, his manager and lover in a relationship that spanned 35 years until Frankie's death at the age of 75.


One glorious thing from my seat. Even before the pouting, aching, curtain up appearances, the left hand side of Cartwright’s long face is all but exactly Howerd’s. The right, a little less so. It’s an additional feature (coincidence) that makes the feeling all the more sensational. Is this Simon, or is it really Frankie? Disconcerting, lovely even when accurately contorted, and all the more moving.

By a neat device of pretending to draw back a high front curtain, Farrelly enables us to know when Frank is taking the stage. He does it a lot, but not too much. Farrelly asserts that Frankie was “the first stand-up to dispense with conventional punchlines and slick patter”.

Perhaps at the start, in the manner of the wartime and post-war ITMA; but of course, that facet did return with a vengeance, and we get a good dose of (accurate) ever-changing facial twisting and contortions, the tickling “Up yours”, “Don’t you dare”, “Brethren”, “Don’t mock the afflicted”. “Hearken ye”, “Watch out, missus”, “We’ll let you know”, “Oh, forget it”; and perhaps wittiest, canniest and shrewdest of all “It’s only acting”- repeatedly penalising but complimenting some hapless member of the audience; such interplay in this buoyant play is a joy.

So – a delight of an evening. Any reservations? Yes, a few.

The range of Frank’s language when ‘on stage’ is slightly secondary to those catch phrases. Of course before the end we get some of Lurcio, Howerd’s role opposite the great Max Adrian in what is sometimes a pretty hack, but often (“The Prologue”) ingenious and hugely amusing sitcom, Up Pompeii.

But the onstage bits could perhaps have prised out, explored, a little more. 

Despite the growing mentions of their love, especially by Dennis (we see it as a bit one way, Frank unable to get the word out) we see only one kiss, and one or two pecks. This Farrelly perceives as fitting for their more mature relationship, probably true, and so, fine. Frank’s almost consistent guilt about his sexuality (although he gradually let it be perceived by his  beloved mum, not, unsurprisingly and especially at that fraught time, by his soldier dad, who died while the boy was still in his teens).

But more physical contact – not necessarily sexual, which is not the point of Farrelly’s presentation or judicious selection – might perhaps have been devised or inserted. Do we care? Perhaps such a suggestion from me is both prurient and gratuitous.

dennis and Frankie

The real Dennis Heymer and Frankie Howerd in 1963

Frank’s near obsession with religion, and morality, gets an airing, but possibly not enough. His doubts centred on this, almost as much as those about his sexuality and sexual needs, maybe above all in his twenties and thirties – the formative 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. But of course most of this preceded Dennis, so why put it in? And there is one longish unexpected sequence about “spirit”, a well pursued Leitmotif: incisive, questioning (Frank in private loved posing questions, putting his interlocutor on the rack) - and perhaps sufficient.

Still, we miss some elements of Eltham-born Francis’s life (though there are some well-timed references to exactly that), and some aspects of his multifaceted, both constant and changing, personality. Besides, Dennis – though obviously there will have been arguments in this clearly very special relationship as he urges and assists, sometimes upbraids Howerd to achieve even greater things, was, I submit, in no way an aggressive, but a strikingly tender type.

Perhaps his lonely last years will have led him in that querying, complaining direction, as like one deserted – after all, he’s talking to a ghost as well as recalling for us the greatness.

But more often his role was to coax, soothe, reassure, comfort, encourage, clutch, bolster, buoy up his quavering lover. Yes, as his nominal manager (not agent), he must have pushed – it was his job to.   

There’s a lot of disagreement, with reconciliations dotted around, this show. ‘Love’ is often declared, that word seemingly one way, i.e. mainly by Dennis, till Frank finally confesses it runs both ways. This is probably the truth, for Farrelly’s research, helped perhaps by Frankie’s surviving friends (Cilla Black was one of the most loyal and supportive), is scrupulous and meticulous. In a two man show we miss the real tenderness a bit.

None of these caveats or cavils have a bearing on the quality of the evening’s evocation of a truly great, but also troubled, man. It’s a lovely piece of writing, and like Farrelly’s previous one-man shows, deeply affectionate towards its subject, or here, its coupling of two contrasted characters.

Perhaps it’s especially good news that Mark Farrelly is poised to present his surely insightful biographical exploration of Derek Jarman (1942-94): prep and public (pubic?) school-educated, openly, cheerfully and probably pre-Roy Jenkins’ ground-breaking bill,  campaigningly gay; affected not only by the oppression of the law in his early days, and (like John Gielgud) by the eager or too often wicked entrapment in public toilets by deliberately prettily proposing younger Police officers (one person thus ensnared by his own men, public displays still being banned after Labour’s and Parliament’s legalisation, was actually the chief constable of West Midlands Police); but Jarman and particularly his generation even more lashed by those worst early stages of the AIDS ‘gay plague’ of the Eighties and Nineties, which, from HIV contracted at the outset in 1986, finally brought about his death in 1994 aged 52.

What promises to be yet another entertaining and deeply perceptive new play by Farrelly is also coming to the Old Joint Stock, from Wednesday 1st to Saturday 4th of December. I’d say, don’t miss it.        

Roderic Dunnett


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