Stephen Tompkinson in red-letter play for old friends

Emma LeeActor Stephen Tompkinson and writer Tim Firth are reunited in the new play Sign of the Times, which opens at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday. Emma Lee dropped in on rehearsals.Emma Lee

It's a chilly, grey day in early March. In a bare room tucked away in a north London community centre, the stage is set for one of the most eagerly anticipated new plays this year to take shape.

For the last couple of weeks actors Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw, writer Tim Firth and director Peter Wilson have been holed up in rehearsals for Sign of the Times.

It's still very much a blank canvas - what looks like a washing line with cardboard letters suspended on it is the only prop.

The actors aren't in costume yet.

But there's a tangible excitement in the air. Between them, the quartet is bringing Tim's characters and words off the page and into life.

The topical play, which is touring regional theatres and opens at Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday, mAY 18, explores themes that will be all too familiar to many at the moment.

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Wild at Heart and Ballykissangel star Stephen plays Frank Tollit, a loyal worker who has spent 25 years putting giant letters up on buildings. But his burning ambition involves a different sort of letters - he dreams of being a writer. Just as his employers are downsizing, apprentice Alan, played by Tom, arrives.

Playwright and screenwriter Tim - whose credits include Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, Confessions of a Shopaholic and the musical Our House based on the songs of Madness - uses a deft touch to bring comedy to a subject which could be very bleak. And, as always, he draws characters who are just like people you know and who speak in the way you do.

As Tim explains during a lunch break, the production is the third incarnation of what started out as a one-act play, commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn in 1991. It was originally titled A Man of Letters, then became Absolutely Frank before evolving into Sign of the Times.

'I feel like I've lived with this play since I was in my 20s. For ages I was trying to work out how to develop it into a full-length play. It was always a play about the relationship between master and apprentice and it needed to be about a young lad who didn't care and had no ambition and an older guy with a huge amount of experience and ambition. I loved the irony of the idea of a man who wanted to write spending his life with letters.

'Without giving too much away, there are a number of factors in Frank's life he's not aware of that are gradually revealed. In the second act the whole notion of who's in charge and the power within the relationship is turned on its head. It's also a play about happiness and how to achieve it at a time when it might seem difficult.'

Tim adds that this is possibly his most physical work.

'There's more 'action' in this play than perhaps any other I've written because there's only two people to keep it moving.

'I loved the idea. You can do this play anywhere with a bit of imagination,' he says.

Did Tim write this new draft of the play with Stephen in mind for the part of Frank?

'No, not at all,' he says. 'It's dangerous to write for any particular actor. I wrote the play with my own vision of Frank in mind. I'd known Stephen for years, and I sent the play to him to see if he was interested.'

'Any excuse to work with Tim and I'm there,' Stephen interjects.

'I said 'please consider me, I think I'm old enough'. It's a play about a young man and an even younger man,' he deadpans.

Stephen is clearly relishing getting into the role.

'Frank has been the head of installation in this commercial lettering factory for the past 25 years and he's very proud of his work. He wants to be the next Len Deighton. He finds little moments at work where he records his thoughts for his oeuvres. He goes home and writes them up,' he explains.

'Then for the first time in 25 years he's given an apprentice. Alan doesn't seem to have any ambition in any direction whatsoever, while Frank's still reaching for the stars.'

'It's about realising that the stars might not exactly be where they thought they were,' adds Tim.

The pair have known each other for years, and that's reflected in their easy repartee - the one-liners fizz between them.

'I went to see Tim's play Neville's Island at Scarborough 17 years ago and I met him and told him how much I enjoyed his work,' Stephen says.

'The next time I saw him was in the audition for [BBC TV series] Preston Front. And it went on from there really. I've always thought that Tim's had that gift to appeal to anyone and everyone - Alan Ayckbourn and Willy Russell are two of the most fantastic, celebrated writers and I think Tim shares that same gift.'

Although his TV roles have made Stephen a household name - one of his earliest parts was the unscrupulous reporter Damien Day in the newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey and when we spoke he was still tanned from filming a documentary in which he tried to cross Africa in a hot-air balloon - he loves working in the theatre.

It's not just Stephen and Tim whose working relationship has been renewed by Sign of the Times. Stephen and Peter Wilson, who is chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal as well as an acclaimed director, know each other from a tour of Tartuffe 10 years ago.

Peter and Tim are also long-time friends.

'I met Peter doing the first play I wrote for absolutely no money after leaving college,' Tim says. 'A young ing�nue theatre director called Sam Mendes, who directed my plays at college, got a job as the assistant to the assistant director at Chichester Festival Theatre, which at the time was being run by Peter.

'At the time they didn't have a studio theatre, but had a tent in the summer and did their own plays, and Sam got me a commission to write a new play. Even though I made the wrong choice and didn't write what I should have written, I did meet Peter. And we kept in touch. And doing Sign of the Times was a lovely way of bringing it full circle.

'And I think Sam works in a pizza place in Chichester now,' he jokes - Mendes, of course, went on to direct the Oscar-winning American Beauty and Road to Perdition and is married to Kate Winslet.

The quartet is completed by newcomer, and laid-back northerner, Tom. Not long out of college, the rising star trained at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). He's made appearances in the E4 shows Skins and the Inbetweeners, but this is his biggest role to date.

'It's nice to be playing a role I can relate to,' he says. 'And you can't ask for a better team.'

Team - that's it in a nutshell. It may be Tim's words that they're using, but everyone involved brings something to the table.

'There's not that many new plays out there,' says Peter. 'And this has been a great joy.'

t Sign of the Times is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday to Saturday, May 18-23. Performances are at 7.30pm with matinees on the Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Telephone the box office on 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk