Writer: Ian Kershaw
Director: Raz Shaw
With theatres coming out of coronavirus restrictions one step at a time, it’s open season on one-person plays, but Julie Hesmondhalgh’s tour de force on The Greatest Play in the History of the World… (ironic title) predates the pandemic. Originally staged in 2018 and with successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, Manchester Royal Exchange and the West End behind it, it is now being toured by Tara Finney Productions, with York Theatre Royal and co-producers Hull Truck among venues on the schedule following the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
In its previous incarnations Hesmondhalgh’s interactions with the audience were a noted feature, even to the extent of borrowing the front row’s shoes. Inevitably this has been toned down: the shoes are produced from boxes on a big metal stand that is pretty much the only set. However, her energy, resourcefulness and natural amiability make her far more sociable than distanced.
The Greatest Play… is an odd little work, though always appealing and often amusing. It’s three plays in one – and it only lasts 70 minutes. The most natural and human element is the story of Tom, lonely and seldom venturing out of his home in Preston Road, waking at 4.40 in the morning and seeing Sara, a young woman in an oversized Bowie t-shirt, in the house opposite. She proves to be the answer to his lifetime of loss and rejection (as he is to her rather different problems).
Ian Kershaw tells Tom’s story in a generally straightforward manner, except for the odd feature that time appears to have stopped at the palindromic 04:40, but in between times Hesmondhalgh sits on the floor in darkness while the shoe stand is illuminated with space-ship lighting for the story of the Golden Record of human culture on the Voyager space-ship. The third story is of Tom’s elderly neighbours, the Forshaws, and bridges the gap between ordinary life in the here and now and mysterious events of cosmic significance – none too convincingly, it must be said, but entertainingly, moving from empathy with the characters to witty detachment – and back again.
The result is pure whimsy, but cleverly and thoughtfully written. Tom, for instance, claims to be a words man and feels himself destined to link up with a numbers woman, so the script moves from poetic description (Preston Road sometimes sounding twinned with Llareggub) to an obsessive lingering on house numbers and ages.
The success of the evening, however, depends largely on the vital performance of Julie Hesmondhalgh, communicating a sense of the wonder and nonsense of it all to the audience.