AT the heart of The Love Season when York Theatre Royal reopens from May 17 will be The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, Julie Hesmondhalgh’s one-woman show.
Produced by Tara Finney Productions in association with Hull Truck Theatre, the debut tour of Ian Kershaw’s multi award-winning play will open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, from May 18 to 22 before History will be made at the Theatre Royal from June 1 to 5 and Hull Truck from June 7 to 12, with all tour performances being socially distanced with Covid-safe measures in place.
Winner of The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2018, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…takes a heartfelt journey that starts and ends in a small, unassuming house on a quiet suburban road, as Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumnus Julie Hesmondhalgh narrates the story of two neighbours and the people on their street, navigating her way through the nuances of life, the possibilities of science and the meaning of love.
The show is penned by Accrington-born Julie’s husband, Ian Kershaw, who has written for Coronation Street, Cold Feet and Shameless, and reunites her with award-winning director Raz Shaw after working together on Margaret Edison’s Wit at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2016.
Explaining the play’s genesis, Julie says: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that Ian should write a one-woman show for me and we could tour it together into our dotage, like travelling troubadours (or something).
“A couple of Christmases ago, he kept disappearing to the cellar for an hour at a time, wrapping presents maybe, I thought. And then he presented me with this lovely thing: a beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark.”
Let the show begin: a man wakes in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped. Through the crack in his bedroom curtains, he can see no signs of life at all, other than a light in the house opposite where a woman in an over-sized Bowie T-shirt stands, looking back at him. Over to you, Julie, from May 18.
Looking ahead to the tour starting at last, she says: “It doesn’t seem for real in some ways because it’s been put off so many times, but now I’m having to learn my lines again with proper commitment, and I’m so excited to be doing it, performing in theatres’ socially distanced bigger spaces. It’ll be a bit of a recalibration for people to get used to being back in a theatre.
“Previously, I was interacting with audiences in the show, using their shoes as a vital part of it, and though I’ll miss doing that, this way of doing it will bring something new to it.
“At the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s funny because there are a lot of people who just book everything that’s on at the Traverse, and they arrive and think, ‘right, what are we seeing now? Oh, she’s wearing jeans’, but with this tour, it’ll be the first thing people will have seen in a long time.”
Julie continues: “Though it’s completely not a play about lockdown, it is nevertheless about people living in isolation, connection, love, and all those things that have been writ large in this strange time, so I think it will now land with people in a really different way than ever before.
“The fact that it’s a play set on northern streets that we’ll be taking around northern theatres, I just think it’s going to be an amazing experience for me.”
How does Julie, 51, re-acquaint herself with a play she knows so well? “I need to go into it almost at Ground Zero,” she says. “It’s quite a difficult play for me to do, as you can never second-guess how an audience will behave or react.
“It’s so different every performance. Some nights, they will roll around laughing at every line, and it’s a real rollercoaster, but it’s a play with so many twists and turns for the audience, so sometimes people will be thinking, ‘what’s this about? What’s going on here?’, because I’m speaking directly to them…
“And there can be something that feels innately sociopathic about me doing that for 70 minutes with some of them looking like they don’t want to be there! In real life, you’d go, ‘well, anyway’ and move on.
“On quiet nights, I’ve been quietly dying inside, but at the end, the lights go up and there’ll be tears in their eyes, and they really want to talk to you about the show afterwards.
“Now, playing to faces wearing masks for the first time, I’ll just have to remember that my job is to tell a story and yours is to sit there and listen!”
One last question, Julie, is The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…really what it says in the title? “Ian went away, wrote the play and came back with that name, but it’s really important to note that it does finish with three dots…
“We’re constantly apologising for it, but I don’t think Hamlet needs to be worried!”
The Greatest Play In The History Of The World… will play Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, May 18 to 22, 7.30pm; 1.30pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday; York Theatre Royal, June 1 to 5, 8pm; 3pm, Thursday and Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, June 7 to 12, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: Scarborough, sjt.uk.com or 01723 370541; York, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or 01904 623568; Hull, hulltruck.co.uk or 01482 323638.
Copyright of The Press, York