THE TV seems awash at the moment with advertisements for funeral plans and over 50’s life insurance, constantly telling us to think about what will happen after we’ve gone and what sort of legacy we want to leave behind us.
The Greatest Play in the History of the World, which reached the end of a tour this week with a visit to Liverpool’s Playhouse, asks us to think about the same things, but in a way that lifts the heart and the spirits, and sends us away feeling more connected with ourselves and the world around us.
Accompanied on the stage only by a collection of shoeboxes is Julie Hesmondhalgh. She asked her husband Ian Kershaw to write a play for her, and the result is a story that ties itself in a Gordian knot for which the solution finally proves to be extraordinarily simple.
Using various items of footwear to represent the residents of Preston Road, Hesmondhalgh introduces us to two people looking across the street at each other with an insomniac gaze, from behind parted curtains in the dead of night. Nothing else is stirring. Even the clocks have stopped, unmoving from a neatly symmetrical 04:40.
If we are rushing through life we might use the phrase that we could meet ourselves coming back. In this story, our two protagonists’ lives have slowed down so nearly to a standstill that they meet themselves at their own point of departure. In a sequence of segments that at first seem unconnected, we meet friends, neighbours, partners and adversaries, all of whom rub along in the same street. As we gradually learn of the connections between Tom and Sara and the others at Preston Road, we slowly understand that time itself has ceased to exist for a static moment, allowing them to see themselves with new clarity.
Punctuating the breaks between these segments, we hear short extracts of pre-recorded narration, describing the Golden Records, which drift through space on the Voyager space probes. They carry the selected sounds, pictures and memories of Earth and humanity that their creators chose to send, as a message to whatever intelligence may one day find them.
The final message this story is clear. What we leave behind us when we depart this life is a collection of memories in the minds and hearts of others. It is up to us to determine what those memories will look like.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is one of the finest actors you’re likely to see on the British stage today. Her gentle but immensely powerful stage presence commands attention without ever demanding it. Under the beautifully nuanced direction of Raz Shaw, she casts a spell over her audience for 70 minutes, and you could hear a pin drop. In the original (pre-covid) run of this play some items of footwear were borrowed from audience members, creating a physical link between them and the characters portrayed. Deprived of this sort of contact, Hesmondhalgh borrows words from the audience instead, with momentary shifts of lighting drawing us closer, so that we feel as though we share the stage with her.
This may only be The Greatest Play in the History of the World of Number 28 Preston Road, as its author decides to rename it as nears its end, but it is a beautifully crafted piece of work that leaves us with a great deal of thinking to do.
Star Rating: 4 Stars
Review by Nigel Smith