Review: HYMN at Almeida Theatre (online)

Almeida production goes digital in soulful new play

MATILDA THE MUSICAL Announces West End Extension; See New Footage From the Show!MATILDA THE MUSICAL Announces West End Extension; See New Footage From the Show!An intense and uncompromising family drama with a jazz soul, Hymn is a physical assault course for the actors as well as a thoughtful reflection of fathers and sons.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, and directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production is being performed live on stage but produced under COVID-safe conditions. No previews, no live audience, just, as co-star Adrian Lester said in the behind the scenes piece before showtime, "two men of a certain age being put through their paces". (Chakrabarti and Lester are married in real-life and collaborated previously on the hit play Red Velvet.)

Gil (played by Lester) is a businessman in a smart suit, speaking at his father's funeral. In partnership as Jones and Son in the dry cleaning and stationery fields, he's made enough to live well and to compete with his off-stage sisters Diane, Cleo and Sweetie. At the funeral he meets Benny (played by Danny Sapani), who has a secret which will be both welcome and challenging to the "large, sprawling family" of whom we hear so much.

Although I guessed fairly early on how the plot would progress, it was hugely entertaining to see these two actors work out their character arcs as the play takes us to a church, cafe, gym, box room, and other confined spaces. They arrive and leave with masks as a nod to the current times, and only make physical contact in a moment of boxing which is cleverly done.

As a piece for the camera as well as for the stage, this has been tastefully and technically choreographed with both safety and reality in mind. In the Q&A following the show, McIntyre talked of the issues around learning to direct film, while Chakrabarti focused on the warmth and camaraderie within her text.

There are musical choices at various points which highlight emotional moments and memories, as well as shared traits between these men as their relationship develops. There are nods to the jazz scene with the names of characters throughout (although, oddly, no jazz music from the period that those names reference).

Fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, uncles and mothers: all thread through the fabric of Hymn as it develops across 90 minutes, no interval. It is perhaps appropriate that clothes are a constant point of reference, from that smart suit to "a dress that cost more than my car", an 80s wig and jacket ensemble, and "Office World leisure wear".

Both Benny and Gil are dreamers, but only one had the opportunity of money and education. Benny is the constant and tenacious worker, 33 years in the same job; Gil flitted from temps to start-ups until his dad pulled him into the family business. Augustus, the patriarch, may be dead, but he looms large in everyone's life. Gil calls him his hero, but we soon see through the cracks.

There are moments where Hymn falters just a little: a reference to a dream and an angel feels forced; the penultimate scene is over-sentimentalised. Better are the scenes where the two men bond and have fun together. It is clear that Lester and Sapani know and trust each other enough to open up in this way with only one preview and a live audience.

Now and again the writing in Hymn and the stage movement evolve into something quite special. The cutaways as scenes change in place and time are effective, the script light and funny when it needs to be. What hits home the most is the difference between these two and yet how similar they are, and how easy it would have been for one to follow the path of the other.

I also liked the brief moments of musical epiphany where a character almost stepped out of the scene: a similar conceit was tried with the score in the 2001 film of Chicago, where no song was performed in the real world. More of this would have been interesting to see in Hymn.

There are also complex hints at the plight of black men of a certain class and of the social care system, but they are largely left on the fringe. In some ways, Hymn could become a series of plays: the richness of characters even unseen and barely sketched out has potential and intrigue - Louis, Benny's son with a political conscience, for one.

Two quotes will ultimately stay with me from this brave and engrossing piece of drama: Gil's assertion that he's "not the big man ... I'm the shooter of blanks", and an image of musical notes "joined at the top, two halves of one beat, played together to sound like one note".

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Hymn is available on demand March 3-9


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