Review: The Greatest Play in the History of the World (Touring)

June 1st, 2021 at York Theatre Royal.


A good story told with great charm, that’s what The Greatest Play in the History of the World… is. It’s energised storytelling which refuses to let any lulls form and instead, ploughs onwards with a combination of great comic delivery and a recurring sense of gravity nestling within the details. An exuberant Julie Hesmondhalgh takes centre stage to tell the tale and the story seems quite simple to begin with: sleeplessness leads to reflectiveness and an over-eager Facebook group provides distraction. Then the beginnings of a love match form, and that Facebook group leads to unexpected developments.

It’s never less than impressive to see an actor hold an audience single-handedly, and Hesmondhalgh is a force to be reckoned with here. Under direction of Raz Shaw and relaying her tale beneath the *almost* symmetrical towers of boxes and bare starry-night-sky bulbs of Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set design, Hesmondhalgh takes us through the meeting of Tom and the lass across the road: two wounded souls seeking something more.

But the narrative is also peppered with intervals of Hesmondhalgh’s voiceover against a backdrop of Mark Melville’s galactic sound design and Jack Knowles’ ebbing and flowing and twinkling lighting. Such intervals allow the seemingly simple tale to take on an epic quality, using the concept of the Voyager’s Gold Record to combine existential rumination with surprising beauty before we, too, are invited to reflect on our own unique and shared human experiences.

Ian Kershaw’s writing is often gently funny, sometimes beautiful and always, somehow, even within the throw-away witticisms, meaningful. The wry humour frequently at play is well-met by Hesmondhalgh’s general enthused warmth and there’s an overall sense of shared understanding which develops surprisingly swiftly. When the subject matter simply embraces the extraordinary within the ordinary, perhaps it’s inevitable that the piece will feel somewhere between relatable and profound. Perhaps best of all though, is that this a lovely way to remind ourselves of the beauty of live theatre and the simple pleasure of being told a good story well. It’s certainly well worth seeing Julie Hesmondhalgh owning her stage.

The Greatest Play in the History of the World… plays York Theatre Royal until June 5th 2021 and you can find your tickets here. You can also read about what Julie Hesmondhalgh has to say about the play here.

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