Monday, 2 December 2019

The Greatest Play, the Strangest Week. Julie Hesmondhalgh Delights in London.

Last week was a funny old week. Having bought tickets to see ‘The Greatest Play in the History of the World’ and begun to plan where we’d have pre(and post) theatre drinks in the West End, the festive cheer had begun to take it’s grip and I’d allowed myself to stop mentally grumbling at the fact Christmas had fully taken over London and we hadn’t even reached December. I was de-Scrooged. Midweek my two-year old niece Ivy had sent me a cute video of her saying “Hello Uncle Ste” for the first time, melting my heart, which reminded me to book my train tickets home to Manchester for the festive break. I was more than de-Scrooged, you could have wrapped me in tinsel and hung baubles from my ears and I wouldn’t have complained.

You are HERE
Then on Friday, London became gripped by that all-too-familiar and all-too-regular chaos as sirens wailed through every street, news alerts set our phones beeping furiously, and hearts sank as we realised it’d happened again. Two people stabbed and killed near London Bridge. The attacker shot dead. Not. Again.

How quickly things can turn around. The actions of one man changed the mood of a whole city. One of the biggest cities in the world momentarily in a state of shock. There are two ways of looking at what happened next. London quickly went back to normal. People went back to work, tourists flooded the city’s attractions. Trains and buses continued on their journeys. London was London again. I worried that this had become too normal and people didn’t think much of what had just happened. But in reality, people just weren’t willing to let the terrorists win.

So on Saturday night, I, along with a few friends headed down to the Trafalgar Studios. It was a cold evening and London was HEAVING. The Christmas markets smelled delicious – and expensive – and my busker mate Wayne was singing Christmas songs to delighted crowds underneath Nelson’s column.

We took our seats in the small 90-seater theatre. Julie Hesmondhalgh, sipping from a mug, was welcoming people in with that trademark smile and warmth. Dawn French was in, chatting to Corrie writer Jonathan Harvey, as was actress Amanda Barrie who Julie greeted with a big hug (kicking myself that I didn’t get a photo of THAT reunion!).

The set was simple. There were a couple of what looked like bookshelves, but instead of books, shoe boxes filled the spaces, and in the middle of the stage, Julie had placed her mug on the floor and the lights dimmed.

“Voyager is NASA’s scientific programme involving two robotic probes…”

Not the start to the play I’d expected.

Then Julie, the narrator, comes to life.

“Preston Road is a busy road…” That’s more like it. The actor begins to describe where we were back on Earth. A pretty average road, in an average town, with pretty average people living in it. As we meet the various characters of Preston Road, footwear begins to make it’s way from the boxes and across the stage. This was no longer a one-woman play. The characters slowly come to life. But for some reason, time has stopped.


Julie’s infectious warmth, that strong Lancashire accent, and her smile fill the room. She looks you in the eye as she tells introduces you to each character, making you part of the performance. If you’re in that room you are probably familiar with Julie and her work, but this is a new level of intimacy and it’s wonderful. Joyful. Intense.

What follows is the stories, the lives, the loves and the regrets of these characters. 

But intermittently the arguable banality and normality of these people’s regular lives is peppered with interjections from another Julie whose voice fills the room, and whose words seem to be channelling Carl Sagan, the celebrated author physicist and astronomer. This is where the play is so emotive for me. Thinking about my week. I was at my happiest and most relaxed on Saturday afternoon eating a battered sausage from the local chippy and watching You’ve Been Framed. The day before, that terrible thing had happened at London Bridge. And now I was watching one of my favourite actors perform this amazing play and CARL SAGAN’s influence was booming across the room.

If you don’t know much about Carl Sagan he wrote “Pale Blue Dot – a Vision of the Human Future in Space”. It’s all about humanity, our significance in the cosmos and how we might venture into the dark unknown. I’m a big space geek so to learn that writer Ian Kershaw had incorporated his big, existential thinking into the play, which was effectively a love letter to his “favourite actor in the world” Julie, was the cherry on the cake.

Julie had recalled earlier in the week on TV how she’d dropped some hints to Ian about how there should be some obvious perks for an actor being married to a writer. And so, in his cellar at home, Ian began to write The Greatest Play in the History of the World, and he gave it to Julie as a Christmas present.

"Hello Uncle Ste"
I must admit there were points in the play, directed by Raz Shaw, where I was struggling to connect the worlds of the residents of Preston Road to the musings of Julie the narrator, Julie 2 and the musings of Carl Sagan. Not to mention the small matter of time standing still. But the play definitely got me thinking. About life, what makes me happy, what really IS out there, and what will I leave behind? And in the whole scheme of things – terror attacks, interstellar space travel, the climate emergency – does my little life matter? The answer is of course yes. Who else would write this, the greatest blog in the history of the world?!

I got home and thought about the play and how I would write about it. I fell asleep listening to Carl Sagan on YouTube. At around 4am, I think I was already awake, but I definitely was after a huge boom echoed across the city and my whole building shook. Windows rattled. An earthquake, I thought. Then I remembered the events of Friday and thought it could have been a bomb. I ran to the roof. No smoke, no mushroom cloud in the distance. Phew.

I checked Twitter and it turned out to have been a sonic boom from an RAF jet that had pursued an unresponsive airliner. I nodded back off to sleep thinking what a strange old week it had been in my little part of this pale blue dot.

The Greatest Play in the History of the World is a simple, touching yet profound piece of work, and you should go see it.

I am on Twitter: @StevieDawson 

The Greatest Play in the History of the World is at the Trafalgar Studios until January 4, 2020. Book HERE.






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2 comments:

maggie muggins said...

Steve, I hadn't heard anything about this play, so your review and your awesome, poetic setting of the day's background brought me to tears of hope, joy and sadness all at once. Julie is one of the few actors I've loved throughout her very varied work on TV. Alas, I don't have a sailing crew to get me to London for this play!

I'm just about de-Scrooged enough for now to wish you and your niece a Happy Yule!

Stevie said...

@Maggie Muggins - thank you! Really appreciate that. Happy Chrimbo to you and yours too x

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