The Greatest Play in the History of the World – Review – York Theatre Royal
By @Roger Crow, June 2021
Heading to the theatre for the first time since early March 2020 is surreal. An actual play in a real theatre. Socially distanced and masked up obviously, but it’s like the audience is part of some weird vision of an alternate future.
I’ve spent a lot of lockdown watching Classic Coronation Street on ITV3, episodes from 1998, when the series was two thirds sitcom, one third drama, rather than lurching from one bad Line of Duty-style storyline to another.
It was also the era when Julie Hesmondhalgh arrived on our screens as Hayley, one of Weatherfield’s greatest ever characters. Every syllable was a joy, and her dynamic with David Neilson’s Roy (who continues to be one of THE best things about Corrie) was TV gold.
Of course in the real world, Julie has long since left the Street and gives stunning performance in everything she signs up for.
Broadchurch? Amazing, as well as assorted other dramas. Even The One Show, plugging this play, she’s like a shot of adrenaline in the most tiresome of TV staples.
“Doctor, the TV patient seems to have flatlined.” “Nurse, give me five minutes of Julie Hesmondhalgh, quick”.
All of which preamble brings us to her performance in The Greatest Play in the History of the World.
For a show about past, present and future, it’s apt that it takes me back 40 years to when I used to write to NASA requesting stuff. They would send glossy booklets, signed astronaut photos and loads of info about space missions. One was a stunning book about the Voyager probes, which fired my imagination.
Around the same time, Carl Sagan’s phenomenal TV series Cosmos was airing on the BBC; every episode was a glorious education on space, the universe and our place in it. Four decades on and those issues are more relevant than ever thanks to Julie’s one-woman show.
It helps that I know nothing about it going in. The simple set is a masterpiece of design. It either looks like what it is: two enormous racks of shoe boxes, or when dark, the data modules from a huge computer. With expert lighting, the tone changes between hard, cold facts and Julie’s warm, energetic, passionate, compelling narration.
If you’re going to deal with issues on a universal scale, it helps if your narrator has one of the most mellifluous voices in showbusiness. And the script is truly epic. It centres on a small cast of characters, mainly Tom and Sara, and their assorted interactions.
“Thing of beauty”
Yes, I’m being deliberately vague because it’s one of those sorts of plays. Superbly witty, beautifully written and boasting a third act that ramps up to a dizzying display of verbal gymnastics. There are also some glorious throwaway lines which will be lost on many people.
And while the first 50 minutes or so are lots of seemingly random threads spun out, when tied together in that finale, it’s a thing of beauty.
That last few minutes left me choked up a couple of times as everything fell into place and the bittersweet comedy drama made good on its titular promise, while poking fun at critics who might condense that bold claim to a two-word review.
Ian Kershaw has long been one of Blighty’s best writers, and this underlines the fact with heavy strokes.
Okay, it’s not the greatest play I’ve ever seen, but it certainly comes close. It’s genuinely that good.
More info: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk