Stephen Joseph Theatre to reopen with The Greatest Play In The History Of The World

Is this The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…? Yes it is! Catch Julie Hesmondhalgh’s one-woman show at the SJT from May 18. York Theatre Royal and Hull Truck Theatres will follow

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre will reopen its doors to the public on May 17, with the first live show a day later.

Further ahead, the SJT summer season will begin with a new play by director emeritus Sir Alan Ayckbourn but the title and dates are yet to be confirmed.

Under the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, pending the latest pandemic data, entertainment venues can play to Covid-secure limited capacities to allow for social distancing from May 17.

The reopening show, from May 18 to 22, will be the first dates of the debut UK tour of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, a one-woman show written by the Bruntwood Award-winning Ian Kershaw for his wife, the former Coronation Street and Broadchurch star Julie Hesmondhalgh.

The SJT programme of live theatre will be announced for the summer and autumn next month. The SJT cinema programme in The McCarthy will re-start from Tuesday, May 25; full details will be released shortly.

Having taken over the first-floor lounge bar last August, Eat Me Café will continue its residency until at least the autumn, open Mondays to Saturdays from 10am, with last orders at 6.30pm, Mondays to Wednesdays, and at 7.30pm, Thursdays to Saturdays. All the usual Covid restrictions will be in place.

The SJT’s joint chief executives, Paul Robinson and Caroline Routh, say: “We can’t wait to open our doors again to our wonderful audiences. We know from their messages how much they’re missing being in the building for live theatre, films and the Eat Me Café.

“We’ll be keeping all the Covid security measures that made them feel so safe when we reopened briefly last year in place for quite some time. These will include temperature checks and hand sanitising on entry, social distancing everywhere in the building, and regular ‘fogging’, or safe disinfecting, of both auditoria in between shows or films.”

“We can’t wait to open our doors again to our wonderful audiences,” says SJT joint chief executives Paul Robinson and Caroline Routh. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Martyn Hyde and Stephen Dinardo, owners of Eat Me Café, say: “We’re absolutely delighted to continue our residence at the SJT. It’s a great space.”

Like all other British theatres, the SJT closed its doors suddenly when the first lockdown was announced last March, reopening in August with rigorous safety procedures in place.

After the second closure was imposed in November, the SJT was able to re-open in time to present its Christmas show, Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen, starring Polly Lister throughout December, but the doors have since remained shut throughout 2021.

Whet the lips for The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, set to be staged in the Round at 7.30pm from May 18 to 22, plus 1.30pm on May 20 and 2.30pm on May 22.  

After the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe premiere at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, the play transferred to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre Studio in September 2018 and later to London’s West End.

Winner of The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2018, Raz Shaw’s production has been adapted especially for the Covid-safe tour in light of these pandemic times and performances will be housed in the larger spaces of each theatre. 

Kershaw’s play heads out on a heartfelt journey that starts and ends in a small, unassuming house on a quiet suburban road, as Hesmondhalgh narrates the story of two neighbours and the people on their street, navigating the audience through the nuances of life, the possibilities of science and the meaning of love. 

“A man wakes in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped,” explains Kershaw, who has written for Coronation Street, Cold Feet and Shameless. “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.”

“A beautiful play that shows us, the human race, in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy,” says Julie Hesmondhalgh of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

Recalling the play’s roots, Hesmondhalgh says: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that my husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, 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, Ian 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 – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark on the world – and maybe beyond – that shows us, the human race, in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy.

“It was the best present I ever got. In these dark and confusing times, it offers a bit of love and light as we enter 2021 with fresh hope.”

Dates for the rearranged tour will be announced for York Theatre Royal and Hull Truck Theatre too.

Chief executive Tom Bird had pencilled in announcing the Theatre Royal’s reopening plans today or tomorrow, but the launch of The Love Season is on hold until further notice. The Theatre Royal will be applying for a grant from the £300 million third tranche of Culture Recovery Fund funding announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

Tickets for The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…at the SJT cost £10 upwards on 01723 370541 or at

Socially distanced arrangement at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from May 17:

FOR the first show, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, regulations will be as they were in the autumn and for the Christmas show: the two-metre rule will apply and the nature of the show means the audience will be on three sides, with a capacity of 80.

The SJT is working on the way ahead, when Government regulations will allow audiences of up to 50 per cent of capacity: 202 in the full Round. “We will certainly be continuing to operate with social distancing for the foreseeable future,” says press officer Jeannie Swales.