Theatre review: The Greatest Play in the History of the World

Our theatre reviewer, Hannah Hobson, shares her thoughts on The Greatest Play in the History of the World at Hull Truck Theatre.

Image: Savannah Photographic

It’s happened! For a while there I think we were all worried it never would, but live theatre is back at Hull Truck and The Greatest Play in the History of the World is a fantastic play to come back to. It’s an immersive reminder of the magic of theatre, 70 minutes of transportive performance; an electric breath of fresh air.

This production comes to Hull Truck with an Edinburgh Fringe run and a London run behind it. It is not surprising that it runs like clockwork but that does not diminish the beauty of those cogs and springs. Not easily summarised, The Greatest Play in the History of the World is a work about life, the universe and everything. Centering on ‘The Golden Record’ – a kind of time capsule of life on Earth, sent on the missions of Voyager 1 and 2 – it uses this enterprise as a prism to explore the human experience.

Ian Kershaw’s writing is excellent, the play grapples with some huge themes while grounding them in an urban reality. Its skillful management of what would be a confusing and complicated plot in the hands of a less deft playwright, is incredible. The characters are brilliantly realised, even those mentioned in passing seem to take on their own unique reality. As an audience, we fully buy into this theatrical world.

This magic is aided by set design from Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and lighting design from Jack Knowles. The visuals of this show are fantastical but, like the script, grounded in an earthbound and scientific reality. Edison bulbs, starry carpets and an abundance of shoes make up the play’s simple staging. This is equally bolstered by the beauty of Mark Melville’s sound design, which seamlessly melds with Julie Hesmondhalgh’s performance.

Image: Savannah Photographic

The use of shoes in particular is a truly inspired piece of stagecraft. Pairs of shoes come to represent each character and become a thematic touchstone. The genius of Raz Shaw’s direction is that the play never feels static or stale, Hesmondhalgh never feels alone on stage as she carries the show. She is allowed to inhabit a multitude of stories within the scope of the play, all through footwear, sound and light.

Hesmondhalgh is the true star of the evening. Her performance is vital and gripping, from the moment she walks out onto the stage she has the audience completely engaged. The true magic of the show spirals out from her at its centre. The way in which she tells this story allows us to feel like her friends.

Ultimately this production from Tara Finney Productions is an example of the best of British independent theatre. It’s compelling, asks questions about the human experience and is also a lovely night out. What a production to return to the theatre with!

It’s running at Hull Truck Theatre and streaming online until Saturday 12 June, make sure you catch it while you can.

[Hannah Hobson – Theatre reviewer]