You are always guaranteed an interesting evening at Trafalgar Studios 2, the tiny space below the main theatre. I have seen a fair number of one person shows and small plays here. The Greatest Play in the History of the World falls somewhere between the two, not quite a one woman show (even though it has just one woman on stage) and not quite a small play. I would describe it as 70 minutes of story telling and it is scintillating.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is effectively our narrator, telling us the story of the goings on in several houses on Preston Rd at 4.40am one morning. At number 28 lives Tom, nursing a broken heart after a relationship breakdown and simmering from the ultimate betrayal, he spends his days watching the world out of his front window and quietly Facebook stalking his ex. Next door at number 30 are Mr & Mrs Forshaw, who at 81 and 76 years old are coming to terms with aging and illness. Across the road at number 27 is Sara, living alone having fled a violent relationship abroad, she questions whether life has already passed her by. The only other residents included in the story are the “unruly kids” down the road, who may not be quite what they seem.
The staging is very bare; a dark carpet with what appears to be tiny stars on it and two industrial shelving units containing shoe boxes. In order to bring the characters to life Ms Hesmondhalgh uses just their footwear, placing various pairs of slippers around the stage as she details the lives of the characters, slowly peeling away layers to let us see the full individuals.
At various points, other characters are introduced into the narrative and to illustrate them Hesmondhalgh takes shoes from the feet of various audience members, much to everyone’s amusement. In addition, her little asides delivered directly to the audience draws us all deeper in.
There is an overlaid story of Carl Sagan, an American scientist, and the work that he led putting together the “golden records” which were attached to the Voyager Mission’s two space craft launched in 1977. These “golden records” were put onboard to communicate the essence of humans to any extra-terrestrial life forms. At various points in the play, Ms Hesmondhalgh sits on the floor, the stage goes complete black and she details the history of, thoughts behind and contents of these golden records.
I cannot detail how the two seemingly separate stories interlink without giving too much away, but suffice to say it is delightful, as is this entire piece.
A stalwart of Coronation Street having played Hayley Cropper for 16 years, Julie Hesmondhalgh gives us a beautifully crafted mini soap opera in 70 minutes. As we enter the theatre, she is chatting away with friends drinking a cup of tea. When she realises the time, she pops down her cup, sits cross legged on the floor and starts the show. She has such incredible warmth; you really feel that you are simply in her front room having a (one sided) chat as she runs you through the goings on up the road. It is both charming and disarming.
The play is written by Ian Kershaw who is married to Julie Hesmondhalgh. She details in the programme notes how several Christmases ago Ian kept disappearing off to the cellar for an hour or so at a time. She believed he was wrapping presents until he presented her with this play. What an incredible gift! It is a fantastically well-crafted piece of theatre that is absolutely perfect for her.
My viewing companion described the whole piece as a ‘huge hug’ and she was not wrong.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Savannah Photographic
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