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BWW Review: HYMN, Almeida Theatre


Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani reprise their roles in Hymn after a sold-out live-streamed run.

BWW Review: HYMN, Almeida Theatre

BWW Review: HYMN, Almeida Theatre "It isn't where you came from; it's where you're going that counts" said jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. It's almost as if Hymn embodies this quote. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti (of Red Velvet and the staged version of Life of Pi fame) over lockdown, the play had its premiere in a sold-out live-streamed run in February.

Audiences are now being welcomed back to live theatre by a completely reconfigured Almeida. The seats are paired up to accommodate social distancing in bubbles, the walls are stripped bare to show the brickwork, and the stage is a long, sleek, wooden thrust that feels like a traverse.

Gil and Benny meet at the end of a funeral. After a first less-than-positive impression, it's clear that they have more in common than they initially thought. Their two families grow closer instantly and their lives are changed forever.

The backbone of the two-hander is a watertight script that allows for powerful and inspired performances by Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani, who both reprise their roles. They are mesmerising as they bounce off each other's energy with electrifying exchanges.

The text is as exciting as their deliveries. Chakrabarti's structure reminds of a Möbius strip: two sides joined together in a circle to become one. Gil (Lester) and Benny (Sapani) are two faces of the same coin; as they both navigate their unfulfilled potentials and antipodal upbringings, real life tests their newly formed bond.

Starting as strangers, the characters develop a fond friendship and provide support to one another until Chakrabarti's loop closes and they find themselves on the opposite side from where they began. The relationship they build is a joy to witness. They joke, dance (they've both got moves!), sing (their harmonies are gorgeous!), and establish one of the healthiest male friendships that's ever been staged at the Almeida.

As they confide in each other while they're sparring, Benny's words of encouragement to Gil create an interesting oxymoron between their actions and the depth of their conversations. Their vulnerability and rawness open the door to an array of hilarious stage antics, and the pair of actors look like they're actually having loads of fun.

Blanche McIntyre handles the different paces in the script seamlessly; her direction is especially eloquent in the abrupt change of gait towards the end when Gil's trajectory takes a turn for the worse.

Gil and Benny struggle with their role as fathers and husbands, with their responsibilities towards society and their families, and ultimately with their self-esteem and identity. Alone, they feel like they have to conform to certain dogmas and fulfil their expectations, but together they allow themselves to open up and let their guards down. That's where Hymn goes beyond its plot and becomes an allegory for personal growth and the fragility of life.

The characters make mistakes and say the wrong things, but they build each other up. Life intrudes into their newfound balance and reality destroys what they worked for, but it only shows that they'd given themselves permission to be human and connect.

The play is a pivotal piece that introduces two black men who aren't afraid to talk about their internal struggles and personal journeys. In-between the healthy friendship they quickly build and the tragic ending, Chakrabarti sets a salubrious example for men. Hymn turns into a strong reminder that there's strength in being vulnerable.

Hymn runs at the Almeida Theatre until 13 August.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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