The Greatest Play in the History of the World...
Tara Finney Productions and the Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
As is acknowledged in the play, the title The Greatest Play in the History of the World... is tempting fate. It begs for a smartarse dismissive comment in any review. Alas, author Ian Kershaw and sole performer Julie Hesmondhalgh spoil the fun by producing a show which, although it does not quite live up to the title, certainly sends audiences home much happier than when they entered the theatre.
Ian Kershaw’s script is something of a contradiction, combining a charming off-centre love story with theories about time and space. Tom is obsessed with symmetry and believes that his passion for language requires him to fall in love with a mathematician so that a balance is maintained. He is recovering from a failed relationship and becomes fascinated by his neighbour, whose name he does not even know.
Tom is unaware that, due to what a certain Doctor once termed ‘timey wimey’ stuff, they may already be lovers in the future—or in the past. Tom’s elderly neighbours have a vested interest in ensuring that the couple get together and events unfold at the moment when time literally stands still.
Although the play covers a wide range of themes, it essentially concerns the things in life that really matter. Kershaw challenges the audience to consider, if push came to shove, the actions and achievements by which they define themselves and the importance of small gestures. It is a gentle, charming play that never surrenders to cheap sentimentality. A dry, understated wit runs through the play with a teacher developing a means of interesting pupils in a lesson that is so successful the children talk about it for minutes afterwards.
The Greatest Play in the History of the World... is structured as a monologue but easily rises above the limitations of this genre. Director Raz Shaw sets a relaxed, intimate atmosphere with Julie Hesmondhalgh not so much narrating the play as gossiping with the audience. Characters are represented by pairs of shoes dragged from boxes at the rear of the stage or borrowed from patrons. If you are in the front row, be sure to wear clean socks. Typical of a show with a character obsessed with balance, Shaw treats the mundane day to day events depicted in the play with the same respect as the issues arising from the Voyager Space programme.
Julie Hesmondhalgh greets patrons as they enter the theatre, directing them to the least uncomfortable seats and chatting about plays recently watched on the fringe circuit. There is no discernable difference between Hesmondhalgh as a person and as a performer; the open-hearted personality is same—which is perfect for a play that refuses to take a judgmental position. Hesmondhalgh’s warm approach achieves a level of audience involvement that stand-up comedians would kill to match.
Perhaps this isn’t The Greatest Play in the History of the World... but it will do until something better comes along.