Thoughtful workplace drama really is a sign of the times

Robert Gill (Frank), Thomas Pickles (Alan) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmun

Robert Gill (Frank), Thomas Pickles (Alan) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Photo: © Keith Mindham Photogr

Playwright Tim Firth is responsible for some of the best loved plays of the past 30 years. Bury Theatre Royal’s Karen Simpson tells arts editor Andrew Clarke that she is re-visiting Firth’s first play Sign of the Times and finds it very relevant

Karen Simpson is the new Executive Director of The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds.

Karen Simpson is the new Executive Director of The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

Sign of the Times may have its origins in the early 1990s but, according to Bury Theatre Royal director Karen Simpson, it is also an incredibly topical and timeless piece of work.

It’s a touching, comic, thought-provoking look at the changing nature of work and society and comes from the pen of writer Tim Firth, the man behind such contemporary classics as Calendar Girls, Our House, Neville’s Island, Kinky Boots and last year’s hit at the The New Wolsey This Is My Family.

It turns out that Tim is one of Karen’s favourite playwrights because of his ability to create plays and situations which revolve around a common experience. “He writes about people and moments in our lives that we can all relate to. Our play is about two men erecting a sign but it’s about more than two men erecting a sign. It’s about them, about them as people and their relationship with work and society’s relationship with people and work and how that changes.

“You get to know these characters as real people rather than as faceless workmen.”

Thomas Pickles (Alan), Robert Gill (Frank) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmund

Thomas Pickles (Alan), Robert Gill (Frank) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Photo: © Keith Mindham Photogr


You may also want to watch:


Karen said that she has always been drawn to Tim’s work because of his ability to write about recognisable people and she was looking to open the 2015 season with a contemporary play that spoke to modern audiences.

“I wanted a play which offered something to you, no matter how old you were. I wanted anyone to see the play and say: ‘I get that. I know about that. I’m living that.

Most Read

“I love Tim’s work because they have huge humanity in them. I saw the original studio version of This Is My Family and I have seen Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots and I think he always brings something interesting and accessible to his work.”

Sign of the Times is a two-man play which has two men working at erecting a sign. In the first act we meet Frank, a experienced installations manager at a commercial signs company. He is in his mid-50s and is taking Alan, a young apprentice, under his wing.

Thomas Pickles (Alan), Robert Gill (Frank) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmund

Thomas Pickles (Alan), Robert Gill (Frank) in Sign of the Times at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Photo: © Keith Mindham Photogr

The second act is played out five years later. Alan now occupies Frank’s old job and Frank is applying for a casual vacancy and the play examines the changing relationship between the two men as the world of work constantly shifts and moves.

In the first act Alan appears to be a reluctant trainee, more interested in his band and his iPod than the complexities of bracketing systems and electrical isolators. However, as they get to know one another, this pair of Yorkshiremen realise that they have a lot more in common than they realise.

Sign of the Times enjoyed a West End run at the Duchess Theatre in 2011, starring Matthew Kelly and Gerard Kearns. In a letter to director Karen Simpson Tim Firth wrote: “Sign Of The Times is a very special play for me because it has grown with me throughout my life. It was pretty much the first play I ever had produced professionally. Back in the day it was for one actor for The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough called A Man Of Letters and, rather like me, it has grown in various directions and hopefully learned a little from experience over the intervening years.

“So Sign Of The Times became a play about exactly that, the passage of time on two characters, the degrees to which we do and do not change, the amounts we do and do not learn. It’s a play about the difference between generations, but in a sense the difference between the me that started it at 24 years of age and the me that finished it at 48.

Artistic director of Bury Theatre Royal, Karen Simpson in rehearsals

Artistic director of Bury Theatre Royal, Karen Simpson in rehearsals - Credit: Archant

“And as for the Theatre Royal? All I can say is that when I was at university putting on plays in boiler rooms and lecture theatres I can remember seeing a photo of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and thinking ‘if I ever get a play on in some place like THAT, I’ll be happy.’”

Karen said that as a director it is great to have a play that you can lose yourself in with the actors. “Tim’s characters have loads of different facets to them. That’s true of the people in all his plays. They’re not superficial in any way and that’s one of his real strengths as a writer.

“What I love about Frank and Alan is that they both have an inner artist in them. Frank is an aspiring novelist and Alan plays in a rock band. As a director I believe that it is true of everyone. Everyone looks for some sort of artistic or creative expression. Some people find it through music, some through dance, others find it through amateur dramatics or painting, writing or dress making. It’s part of the make-up of us as human beings. It really comes down to the degrees with which you pursue that side of yourself.

“For me I have been fortunate enough to follow it into a rewarding life and career in theatre whereas for other people I know they love performing with the local amateur-dramatic society.”

She said that Tim’s ability to find a real voice for his characters gave his plays a believability and an honesty which stopped tragic scenes in Calendar Girls and Neville’s Island from becoming maudlin or sentimental. “But, again, in Calendar Girls, he celebrates the creativity of ordinary people. The artistry in that original calendar was amazing and it makes you look at the WI in a totally new light.

“The same with Kinky Boots. The creativity shown in transforming that Northamptonshire factory is really inspiring. We’ve all seen factories struggle in these tough times and seeing a tale where people pull together, think outside the box, to turn the situation around is a tangible result of our creative spirit.

“Good drama is when you look into the soul of a person. In many respects I find it hard to accurately describe what Sign of the Times is about. It is more than the narrative which is about two sign erectors – one is at the end of his career and the other is at the beginning. But, it’s not really about that. The heart of the piece is in the relationship that develops between them.”

She said that the play tackles the very current issue of experienced fifty-something workers who are made redundant in favour of younger, so-called more dynamic workers who don’t have the skills or experience to replace the people who have left. “This happens to Frank in our play when he is left out of the reorganisation of his company. All that accumulated experience is suddenly not there any more.

“As a society we seem to have fallen out of love with experience and loyalty. We are encouraged to view careers just in the short-term. I think in the last 30 years there has been a massive revolution in the world of work. There is a school of thought which suggests that you shouldn’t stay with any one employer for more than five years. I think this view, taking us away from long-term stability, goes back to the era of Norman Tebbit when he encouraged everyone to get on their bike but now it is having unforeseen repercussions.

“If you were starting work in the 60s, 70s and 80s, loyalty was an important part of the contract between employer and employee and you were rewarded for that. Sadly, in many ways, times have changed.”

In our play Frank is a bright guy with lots to give and he has got to find a way to express himself in a new world.

Sign of the Times, by Tim Firth, is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, until January 31 amd New Wolsey Theatre from February 24-28.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter