In an empty Almeida, two heavyweight actors – Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani – bring serious male energy to Lolita Chakrabati’s new play about black friendship. Sapani’s Benny arrives in the lives of Gil (Lester) and his three, dominant, off-stage sisters in an unexpected and not entirely welcome manner. Gil is aloof and confident, while Benny is socially out of his depth. But, in a series of jump-cut scenes, the two hit it off in a way that could be the making of them, or their downfall.
Chakrabati has written a play with a lot to recommend it, even if it finally lacks the level of credibility. The two characters seems a little like types rather than individuals at times, although in the hands of the two performers they are both fascinating to watch. Sapani, in particular, is excellent as a many who has rarely trusted others, but could be persuaded to trust this newcomer who is the brother he never had. The same seems to go for Gil, whose relationship with his sisters, more confident and more successful than him, combines with his father’s ambiguous legacy to leave him adrift. Benny, at first, looks like the man he’s been waiting for.
The play deals every effectively with the experience of being black and male, rather than just male, in 1980s and 90s Britain. Scenes are punctuated by black music of the era, which the two perform in various ways, including home-made karaoke and with Sapani’s powerful voice, and delightedly reminisce over. It’s not the musical heritage we see on a Top of the Pops revival show. And there are passing references, such as Benny’s memory of his boxing gym mentor, as “A bit of a racist, but he meant well.” This rings very true, and Chakrabati tells the story from a perspective that still makes only occasional appearances in the mainstream.
If Hymn is not a perfect play, it is certainly very good. The atmosphere conjured up by Lester and Sapani, two of the country’s top performers, is powerful and they bring drive, emotion and focus to the drama. The writing is nuanced and structured, and the full circle ending very affecting. And, of course, every credit must go to the production team for transferring a play scheduled when we thought theatres would be open again, on to the small screen with complete confidence. I cannot wait to be back in the Almeida, peering around a pillar, enjoying actors of the calibre of these two.