Hymn

Lolita Chakrabarti
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

Adrian Lester as Gilbert Credit: Marc Brenner
Danny Sapani as Benny Credit: Marc Brenner
Danny Sapani as Benny and Adrian Lester as Gilbert Credit: Marc Brenner
Danny Sapani as Benny and Adrian Lester as Gilbert Credit: Marc Brenner
Adrian Lester as Gilbert Credit: Marc Brenner
Danny Sapani as Benny Credit: Marc Brenner

You should have been reading this a week ago, but the performance I was due to see had to be cancelled because a COVID test was not through in time. The original run of Lolita Chakrabarti’s study of male bonding and family was scheduled for the beginning of the year but had to be cancelled and the production briefly streamed online. It has been a long wait to see it in the flesh and shared with an audience.

A two-hander with Adrian Lester as middle-class, university educated shop owner Gilbert and Danny Sapani’s Benny from a more deprived background, it presents two fifty-year-old black men discovering each other.

We meet Benny first. He is in a pub, a bit tipsy, which makes him belligerent and confrontational, before sneaking in at the back of the funeral of the man he believes was his father. Gilbert is in the middle of his eulogy for his dad Augustus. After the service, when Benny approaches him, his response is polite but suspicious.

It seems Gus wasn’t quite the paragon Gilbert painted and, despite their very different rearing (one in a family of high achievers, the other with a mentally unstable mother which meant he was often in care homes) the half-brothers find much in common.

Their families get on and Gilbert opens up opportunities for Benny while in turn he helps Gilbert’s self-esteem. These are men discovering themselves as well as each other, they have plans for a rosy future, but then, of course, things go wrong.

Perhaps it's a predictable storyline, but Chakrabarti presents two well thought through characters that offer actors an irresistible challenge which Lester and Sapani take on triumphantly. These are virtuoso performances that, as the middle-aged men relive their youth, encompass singing, boxing, yoga and breakdancing that have the élan of a cabaret, delighting the audience, but all part of deeply felt performances from two fine actors.

Presented on an almost bare stage, with a big contribution from music and lighting, Blanche McIntyre’s direction gives the actors full rein yet controls things precisely. The actors enter through the audience wearing face coverings: these men could be any one of us. On the stage floor are a prayer book and a whisky bottle; they waver over which to pick up, but how much choice do they really have in their lives? As the play tragically brings things full circle, it leaves questions, not answers.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton