The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Summer 2021
Male vulnerability just shouldn't show. Men are expected to be the tough, capable souls of the party. But that pose has its problems and is difficult to maintain, as Lolita Chakrabarti illustrates with the relationship of two men in her play Hymn.
It opens with quick glimpses of their authority, their hardness. Benny (Danny Sapani) is speaking angrily to people in a pub. The scene shifts to Gilbert (Adrian Lester) giving a church eulogy for his dead father Augustus “Gus” Jones, a very capable man we are told and someone who ‘best expressed himself in church.’
Shortly after this Benny, who he doesn't know, approaches Gilbert outside the church to reveal he is also the son of Gus. While the official family of Gus became a successful middle-class family, the secret encounters with Benny’s mother Rose resulted in her having a breakdown and Benny being put into a children’s home.
Although Gilbert is initially sceptical about the connection, they are soon bonding in traditional male ways, training at the boxing gym and, in an extended 50th birthday scene in Benny’s storeroom, sing and dance together to the music of their youth.
The live audience in-person version of this sequence is so much more fun and exciting than its filmed performance first streamed in February. Certainly, the liberation from the demands of camera positions seems to give the performers a more confident freedom to engage with each other and the audience.
It’s a fine intense performance, but the story is too narrowly focused on male bonding and vulnerability. It’s also stuffed with improbable events that stretch believability to the limits.
Would you, for instance, be likely to meet a stranger and hand over your life savings for them to invest? Even the writer’s slight attempt to pepper the play with a bit of politics had me raising an eyebrow, as when Gil solves the problem of Benny's son getting carried away and smashing a window on a protest by giving him a Saturday job. Maybe Priti Patel should try that strategy on Extinction Rebellion rather than introducing her draconian Police bill.
Despite the improbable plot developments, this isn’t a play that surprises us. The journey is reasonably predictable. Almost every Hollywood movie for the last century has given us touching scenes of tough guys with a heart of gold bonding together over a drink, or a tussle, or a dance. It’s familiar stuff.
Hymn is an entertaining return to live theatre. You will laugh, maybe shed a few tears and perhaps dance with a friend on the way home. But the play could and should have been so much better.
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