Thursday, February 18, 2021

HYMN (Almeida Theatre)*****

By Cal


Available until: There will be livestreams at 8pm every night until Saturday 20th February. There is also a 3pm matinée on 20th February and an extra performance on Sunday 21st at 5pm. There are a limited number of tickets available for each performance to ensure a high-quality stream.

You can form a connection with another person in the strangest places. Sometimes it is literally a matter of seconds. My (adoptive) gran once saw a poem she loved in a bus stop (I’m guessing it was on the wall). A man came into the bus stop. He looked at the poem and they shared a glance. No words were exchanged, but she knew he loved that poem, just like she did. She knew he’d recognised that she loved it too.

Other connections can last a lot longer. Like the time when I was running away from someone and ended up in a place where I really shouldn’t have been (it’s not as bad as it sounds, the full story is embarrassingly respectable) and got told off for trespassing by a lad a couple of years older than me. I didn’t stick around and we had no idea that we’d end up getting engaged. But we recognised each other again later and our second meeting went a lot better.

But that’s enough about my family. It’s time to talk about the family in Hymn.

Gil is at his father’s funeral. He speaks about the great man his father was. It’s an emotional and moving moment and it does seem sincere. But families are complicated, as this play reveals.

Benny is at the funeral too. He doesn’t know Gil. He didn’t even know his father. But a past event connects them and as they slowly get to know each other, with many false starts and misunderstandings, they realise their connection is even stronger than they realised.

Gil and Benny talk about and get to know the people in each other’s lives, but although we get to hear a lot about their families and almost feel like we know them too, Gil and Benny are the only two characters who appear. Their arguments are almost physically painful to listen to. The moments where they bond are almost impossible to watch without smiling. They could so easily never have met, but these two men are great together.

Lola Chakrabarti has written this brilliantly. The two men are clearly different, right from the start when Gil walks in with the swishest suit you’ve ever seen, with Benny far more casually-dressed and not in the traditional funeral black, but the connection between them is really clear and believable. So are the arguments. Men traditionally aren’t the best about talking about their feelings (mostly, I believe, because of the general expectation that men shouldn’t do that) and this is explored really convincingly. The revelations do come, but often either reluctantly or in a burst of emotion that can’t be contained.

Blanche McIntyre is the director and you have to admire not just the way she has brought the play to life on the stage but the way she has made it COVID-safe. Physical proximity is usually so important with a close friendship or relationship and you’d usually expect some physical contact but Blanche has worked around this so it’s always believable that the men aren’t getting too close. They bring out their closeness with body language and tone of voice instead. There are quite a few scenes where the men are messing around (there’s lots of music and dancing in this play and they look like they’re having so much fun), but it’s never dull and it never holds the action up because the moments are so irresistible and show you so much about these two men.

The original plan was for the play to be performed for socially-distanced audiences, but we all know what went down there. So the production is being performed in the theatre without an audience (not even the writer, who is also married to one of the actors, is allowed into the auditorium) and livestreamed to audiences at home. Maybe I’m just used to the absence of an audience after a few hundred plays but there is so much intensity and energy in this performance, the characters never seemed lost in an empty auditorium and I was too busy enjoying the play to think about the fact there was no in-person audience.

Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani are incredible as Gil and Benny. Gil is smoother and sharper on the surface but insecure underneath it, wanting to do the right thing but not always believing in himself. Benny is more extrovert and knows a bit more about the world and has more ability to take care of himself, but sometimes he too can trust the wrong person. Both men are likeable even in their darker moments and their relationship is brilliant to watch. They challenge each other in all sorts of ways and they’re great for each other. Most of the time.

It’s difficult in a review to do justice to how good this play is, but it has a great story, a great director and two great characters and everyone combines to bring it brilliantly to life onstage.

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