IN THE contemporary suburban London of Lolita Chakrabarti’s two-hander Hymn, Christianity can be as much a moral sorting hat, and place of shame and judgement, as it is a source of joy and sustenance.
When Benny, a stranger, turns up at Gilbert’s father’s funeral, one of Gilbert’s first questions is “You’re not church people?” Gilbert, played by Adrian Lester, has come to church, “the big house”, both to bury and praise his father, Gus. In his eulogy, Gil remembers how his tailor father stitched his first-communion suit by hand, and, Bible in hand, ends with a reading of Psalm 150 “that was Dad’s favourite”.
As the relationship between Gil and Benny, played by Danny Sapani, deepens, different facets of a prism are held up to what it means to enjoy your father’s favouritism. As Benny is accepted into Gil’s wider family, he transforms from the lonely, volatile man yearning for companionship whom we meet in the opening scene, into a wise and stable influence on both Gil and his own son, Louis.
For Adrian Lester’s character, the journey happens in reverse. He begins the play a confident man, seemingly someone who has enjoyed all life’s advantages, but, as the reality of filling the emotional void left by his father with flesh-and-blood Benny becomes ever closer, Gil disintegrates. Symbolically replacing the Jones & Son sign above his father’s shop with Jones Brothers cannot translate from desire and fantasy into reality.
In Hymn, Chakrabarti sets out to explore male friendship and bonds, and succeeds stunningly. Performed live, on a socially distanced stage, the changing dynamics of being the prodigal, the outcast, and the chosen one are played out against a soundtrack of hip-hop and jazz. Fifty-year-old Benny and Gil dance, box, and sing as they revel in each other’s company, and the joy of finding connection in mid-life.
And, while the rituals and language of the Church are touched upon rather than dwelt upon, it is heartening to see Christianity portrayed as a part of life for everyday, relatable, sympathetic characters rather than used as shorthand for bigot or crank. Blanche McIntyre’s fluid direction, combined with the naturalistic camerawork, makes Hymn the most immersive and compelling performance that I have seen all lockdown.
Hymn is available to stream on demand until 9 March. Tickets for the on-demand stream can be booked in advance. Access is for two days from the date selected. See almeida.co.uk