Writer: Ian Kershaw
Director: Raz Shaw
Reviewer: Miriam Sallon
It’s about that time of year when, in an attempt to distract us from the fast-dwindling daylight hours and loss of feeling in our fingers, we are assaulted with syrupy stories of unlikely romantic pairings and even less likely family reunions, all simultaneously sunny and snow-capped. The Greatest Play In The History Of The World is not that. Instead, combining the majesty of outer space and the emotional minutia of the human experience, writer Ian Kershaw gives us that sense of cosy assurance that we crave in the festive winter months, but without any of the garish seasonal tropes.
Julie Hesmondhalgh presents us with a love story steeped in funny little details such as Tom’s favourite words (cherish, marzipan, traffic cone) or Sara’s annoyance at the overuse of ‘hurricane’ when ‘storm’ will suffice. But it’s also set (as are all plays, one supposes) on a tiny blue dot floating in outer space. Tom and Sara’s meet-cute is spliced with the story of the Golden Record, a kind of capsule sent in to space. Curated by Carl Sagan in 1977, it contains a taste of life on earth- photos, songs and so on. This constant ebb and flow between the micro and the macro gives the story a kind of weight that is completely absent from most seasonal shows. It portrays both the silliness of our daily struggles, and the marvel that we should ever find any meaningful connection in seeming infinite space.
Hesmondhalgh is a charming host, engaging in very gentle audience participation, just enough to encourage a sense of community, but not so much that everyone spends the evening desperately avoiding her eye. Whilst she’s alone on stage, there are many supporting roles, each played by a pair of shoes, mostly neatly shelved in shoe boxes (as designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen), waiting to be called upon. But for a number of pivotal roles, she calls upon the audience’s shoes. You’ve been warned: Make sure you’re wearing socks. And as a kindness to Hesmondhalgh, maybe wear slip-ons- a pair of eight-hole lace-up doc martens near on caused a scene.
Whilst Kershaw’s plot is certainly full of sentiment, there is also a comforting sense of bathos throughout. Nothing is beyond reproach: Sager wanted to include The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ on the Golden Record, for example, but the record label wouldn’t give permission. It seems bizarre that something so high-minded could be connected to something so trivial and petty. But such is everything, according to Kershaw. Love is both the most ridiculous thing, and the most beautiful; death is both a force of great mystery and full of tubes and bodily fluids.
In the programme, Hesmondhalgh says The Greatest Play In The History Of The World should feel like a present to the audience, and it really does. It is not, perhaps, the most important play in the history of the world, but, floating home through the cold, on to sticky public transport, squeezed up against a stranger’s back, one is left with a gentle glow of contentment, and with the current state of things in the world, it’s just the ticket to make you feel that all is not lost.
Runs until 4 January 2020 | Image: Savannah Photographic