Ray Rackham reviews Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play In The History Of The World now playing at Trafalgar Studios 2, London.
The Greatest Play In The History Of The World
Trafalgar Studios 2
Press nights are a funny thing; a combination of the well-intentioned, well-meaning friends and family, the crossed armed, ever-so-serious critic whose demeanour suggests they haven’t cracked a smile since the dawn of the new millennium. They’re a time for playwrights, directors and producers to sit nervously, watching the audience watch what is happening on the stage, desperate to gage the collective reactions as if to count the probable star ratings through counting laughs or gasps. How beautifully refreshing it is, in which case, to instead be treated – as you walk through the doors to Trafalgar 2 – to Julie Hesmondhalgh, complete with a fourth-wall-breaking, extra-large mug of tea, a huge smile, and I “hiya, love” that immediately puts you on side.
Stopping a little short of saying “right, I’ve got to do my show now”, Hesmondhalgh is summoned to perform by Mark Melville’s impressive sound design, which in turn transports us to an almost infomercial of facts surrounding the launch and travels of the Voyager program; the American scientific program studying the outer Solar System which has actually gone further than any earth-made object has gone before. As Jack Knowles sensitive light design kicks in, Hesmondhalgh – resplendent in a pair of baggy slacks and a mustard cardigan – begins. She narrates a simple and beautiful Bennettesque story, which sits at the heart of the success of this play. Unlike Bennett, however, Ian Kershaw doesn’t write to celebrate foibles and idiosyncrasies; instead, he writes the kind of character you could one day meet at the bus stop or in the queue at the food court of an Arndale Centre; the natural orator who has a knack for noticing the little things.
Through the movement of strategically placed shoes that represent the various characters in this story – indeed some procured from said front-row audience members – Hesmondhalgh knowingly invites us into the world of Tom, a thirty-one-year-old man who wakes in the middle of the night to discover time has stopped. It appears only his neighbour across the street, Sara (a twenty-six-year-old woman in an oversized Bowie tee-shirt) is also awake, and possibly the elderly neighbours next door. We examine what happens in that moment where time suspends and all the possibilities of the universe take flight.
It takes enormous spirit and significant aptitude for a lone performer to tell a story that contains numerous characters so effortlessly, an
d Hesmondhalgh’s skills in animating the seemingly inanimate (ie the shoes used to bring life to the characters) is testament to the marriage between her skill as an actress and the comfortable domesticity of the world Kershaw has created. Indeed, it’s both easy and lazy to credit only the performer here (although Hesmondhalgh does indeed earn all praise) as Kershaw’s script and Raz Shaw’s direction combine in true theatrical alchemy. There is a telling moment where the grandiose terms “apathy” and “ennui” are replaced with a simple “meh”, which reminded this reviewer at least that this play is not trying to be clever; the fact it is is a product of its component elements working in a state of actual harmony.
Daringly whimsical and blissfully romantic, using metaphors with the side-glancing giddiness of a besotted neighbour posting a midnight valentine to their beloved, we realise the connection between the frequent infomercial Voyager interjections; heading into a space of nothingness; and Tom (too afraid to step out of his own front door to find some semblance of a life). The Greatest Play in the History of the World might not even be the greatest play in the history of the Trafalgar 2 (which Kershaw addresses with a critic defying nod); but with its abundance of heart, charming voice, and ability to weave a delightful narrative tapestry; you’ll feel neither wanting nor short-changed in seeing it. A career-best narrative performance of Hesmondhalgh adds the all-important icing to a deliciously baked cake.
Until 4 January 2020 at Trafalgar Studios 2