Frankie Howerd lived with his partner Dennis Heymer for forty years, a partnership concealed by the euphemisms of the age with Jeymer being his chauffeur, secretary, personal aide, whatever. Those who knew them knew, the world did not, although the world did see Howerd as a very camp comedian and was probably not as blind as one might think. He was a complicated man with a career which soared in his radio days, slumped – Heymer worked as a barman to help out – and was revived by a stint at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club, the alleged Soho home of satire. The films, the career as a stand up adored by university students, the status as a national treasure followed with the devoted Heymer there in the wings while Howerd apparently pleasured himself elsewhere.
Heymer was serving drinks at the Dorchester – he was a sommelier rater than a bar man – when they met in 1955 and it was love at first sight.
Mark Farrelly has crafted an neat two hander about the difficult relationship between the two men – we meet Heymer facing death having an encounter with the ghost of his lover. It is well constructed and holds the attention. Simon Cartwright as Howerd catches the accent, the mannerism an the look very well, but he is, in the end, a good actor pretending to be funny. It is not in his bones and the extracts from Howerd’s routines he gets to deliver – one has to assume they are word perfect as there are plenty 0f recordings – are simply not funny. The Establishment one is a case in point. There is nothing to laugh at. The stars are for the fact that it is a well constructed play performed well by the two actors – it is not Cartwright’s fault he does not have funny bones. The result is a case of titter ye not.
It is also an intriguing look at lives in the closet – Heymer participated in a television version transmitted before his death so there is biographical material putting his side of the tale out there. Whether any of what one learns adds to the experience of watching Howerd at work – he died in 1992 and his films still surface on television and still work as well today as they did then – is anybody’s guess. The tortured comedian is hardly new. It seems to go with the job.
Heymer is seen here as haunted by his past relationship. but after Howerd’s death – he used to give fans guided tours of their home – he did find another partner and no mention of that is made.
The Golden Eagle, a new pub theatre, turns out to be a handsome room with a good stage – very hard seats, but that is par for the course on the fringe – easy to reach by public transport and way back in the days when Howered was in his prime was one of London’s most popular drag pubs attracting audiences of all persuasions. There is a kind of irony in the fact that it is being performed there.
Frankie Howerd: Simon Cartwright.
Dennis Heymer: Mark Farrelly.
Director: Joe Harmiston.
Composer: Robert Singer.
Lighting Designer: Mike Robertson.
Sound Designer:Tom Lishman
Photograph: Jacky Summerfield.