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Christ, it’s good to see a play that isn’t about the sodding Coronavirus. Aside from a couple of masks, there’s barely a whiff of a global pandemic in all of Hymn. Writer Lola Chakrabarti curated the brilliant The Greatest Wealth for The Old Vic in 2018, a collection of monologues celebrating the NHS, and her much-anticipated adaptation of Life of Pi for the Crucible Theatre will surely take to the stage as soon as the pandemic subsides. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Johnson’s permission to enjoy Hymn (although it would undoubtedly be brilliant to see performed live and in person).
Hymn centers on Gilbert (Adrian Lester) and Ben (Danny Sapani) and explores what it means to them to be men, and what it means to fathers, brothers, and sons. Through love, music, and death, though polar opposites, they somehow manage to find lots of common ground.
The piece opens with a funeral – Gilbert’s father has died. Danny is at the funeral too, but he didn’t know the deceased. Gilbert delivers a speech that I feel encapsulates how a lot of fathers and sons navigated their relationships in recent times, he says “he drew the lines, and I lived in them.” It initially sounds supportive, strong – as a father should be. But we soon see the effect of this patriarchal dominance in Gilbert.
Sapani describes Hymn as “an unconventional love story”, and it really is. His quiet, gruff, working-class Ben and Lester’s posher, much more vocal, middle-class Gilbert have undeniable chemistry and elevate the script in the occasional moments when it feels as though not much is actually going on. The musical breaks, which vary from serious and stirring acapella to a playful duet between the pair that is joyful to watch, sometimes feel a bit out of place, but mostly serve to set the emotional tone and do so quite well.
However, at its core, Hymn highlights an issue that we all ought to discuss more – mental health, specifically men’s and how it is affected when life inevitably threatens our perception of ‘manliness.’ We all know the terrifying statistics, such as suicide being the biggest killer in men under 45, but Hymn helps to put things into more human perspective. A thoughtful, sensitive portrayal of the building of a relationship and brotherly love between two men, Hymn is the first piece I’ve seen in lockdown that has made me genuinely excited to return to the theatre again.
Hymn is streaming on the Almeida Theatre website until 27 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Almeida Theatre website.