There is something awe inspiring about being awake as the rest of the world seemingly lies in slumber. The silence is consuming, and those midnight musings bouncing through your head resonate in the stars above, echoing for billions of miles. Whilst it can induce a lonely, isolated feeling (sound familiar?), when you realise that there are others – awake and unseen – there is a solidarity to be found.
In Ian Kershaw’s The Greatest Play in the History of the World we are lead through the lives of the inhabitants of Preston Road. Tom and Sara, two neighbourly strangers who both feel as though their lives are just treading water, notice time standing still at 04:40 and, staring out at the darkness of the street, realise that they share this blackness together. Backdropped by the story of the Golden Record and its reflection of all that life on earth has to offer, there are moments of history as well as fiction.
Delivered as one continuous monologue by Julie Hesmondhalgh, the narration is always external. Intricately versed in every aspect of their lives, she brings these characters to life not by enacting their words, but by laying bare every sordid detail of their everyday lives. Much like the window-peeping Tom, there is something unsettling about how thoroughly Kershaw’s eye sweeps across them all, laying the good with the bad, as well as giving plenty of opportunity for Hesmondhalgh’s gentle comedic nature.
As each character is introduced, a representation in the form of a pair of shoes is taken from a box at the back of the stage in a towering rack and placed in a spot along two parallel lines on the stage. This simple staging brings Preston Road to life and gives us a point of reference as the pace builds and the monologue begins to get more complex.
The otherwise empty black stage, with design by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and lighting by Jack Knowles, is perfect to create the vastness of night, illuminating the stillness of these moments in their lives and the events that unfold between them. This is further complimented by the dramatic and ethereal soundscape designed by Mark Melville.
Hesmondhalgh’s performance, directed by Raz Shaw, skilfully navigates the twists and turns of Kershaw’s text. Never missing a beat, she finds moments of joy, humour, sadness, and stillness that show incredible empathy for these people that are apart from herself. Some nods to audience participation add the joy of a return to live theatre that feels truly invigorating. Also, rather than detracting from the performance, it enforces her disconnect from the situation, like an observer looking down – just as those who find the Golden Record would.
The Greatest Play… is available to watch live, or to stream on demand, until 12 June. For more information and to book tickets, visit Hull Truck Theatre’s website.