The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, June 7 to 12
NOTE the dots in that title. Ian Kershaw’s 70-minute one-woman show for his wife, Corrie star Julie Hesmondhalgh, does not lay claim to be the greatest play in the history of the world full stop.
However, like NASA’s Voyager probes, Kershaw aims for the stars, and as this most human and humane of love stories progresses, you accumulatively feel you are watching a great play with a sense of history and a grasp of what makes the messy world go round.
Kershaw’s focus is on the comings and goings of quiet, suburban Preston Road, and yet life in this northern town is universal too, such are his skills of observation and the beauty of his moving, witty turn of phrase.
Given the surfeit of solo shows to meet pandemic regulations in 2020 and 2021, you might have expected “Greatest Play” to have been purpose-built for now. Not so, Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumna Hesmondhalgh first performed Kershaw’s work in 2017.
Nevertheless, she has described the delayed 2021 tour as putting her back at Ground Zero, opening with a week-long sold-out run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough, from May 18, with the need to adapt to change, socially distanced circumstances, not least to no longer using audience members’ borrowed shoes to play assorted characters.
That night was the first time she had played to an audience in masks, an experience that John Godber said first felt like he was performing in an operating theatre, rather than a theatre, when premiering Sunny Side Up last autumn at the SJT.
Such is her popularity and versatility, Hesmondhalgh was “double-booked” all her SJT week, appearing simultaneously on screen in BBC1’s whodunit, The Pact. Such is her natural warmth, and ease with performing, whatever the circumstances, that any fear of disconnection between performer and spread-out audience dissolved immediately. Be assured, that will be the same in York from tonight and Hull next week.
Beneath bare light bulbs reminiscent of stars when lit and in front of shelf upon shelf of shoe boxes, stacked high, Hesmondhalgh immediately breaks theatre’s fourth wall to make everyone feel at home back in the theatre, then sets up the story of a man waking in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped at 04.40…precisely. He will keep doing so in Kershaw’s account, echoing, albeit distantly, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day.
Through his bedroom curtains, he sees no signs of life, save for a light in the house opposite where a woman in an over-sized Bowie T-shirt is standing. She is looking back at him, just as bemused, just as unable to sleep, feeling just as isolated…
…So begins the love story of central characters Tom and Sara, and gradually Kershaw fills in the street life, Neighbourhood Watch scheme and characters of Preston Road and opens out his focus, moving between past and present and asking us to ponder who we are, what may be thrown at us, what judgements we may make of those around us.
Detail is all, typified by Hesmondhalgh observing the Latin tattoo on neighbour Mrs Forshaw’s arm that translates as “through hardship to the stars”: in a nutshell, the trajectory of Kershaw’s story.
What takes it to the heights is the way sci-fi enthusiast Kershaw weaves the Voyager probes into the play, and more particularly the Golden Record taken on each mission with recordings that encapsulate the essence of life on Earth: “People having a good time. People cramming it all in,” as Hesmondhalgh puts it.
This sets both Kershaw and the audience to thinking about what we should include now in such a time-travel experiment, and after Hesmondhalgh has led everyone to both cheers and tears, she will have you smiling, exhilarated, at what makes everything worthwhile, even under the Covid cloud. Cue Here Comes The Sun and smiles all round, behind masks of course!
The solo show is a tough gig, be it for an actor or comedian, but directed by a Raz Shaw touch, Hesmondhalgh is wholly in control, often playful, using stairways as well as the stage, equally adept in a rising tide of emotion or in a moment of calm. She has the timing of a comic, yet the gravitas for tragedy too.
If you are seeking THE play to re-introduce you to the joy of theatre-going after pandemic hibernation, right now this is The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…for doing that. Full stop.
York Theatre Royal performances: evenings at 8pm, plus 3pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office, 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Hull Truck Theatre performances: evenings at 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 01482 323638 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
All tour performances are socially distanced with Covid-safe measures in place.