Danny Sapani describes this play about a strange male friendship as an “unconventional love story.” He’s half his cast, playing the gruff and well-rounded school-educated Benny to Adrian Lester’s middle-class Gilbert, whom he meets on the day of the latter’s father’s funeral. It’s a thorny encounter, but over the course of a year, they become part of each other’s family.
It’s unconventional in other respects too: a drama with interwoven symbiotic musicality, so that Sapani and Lester intermittently erupt into song and dance, beginning with an a cappella performance of Stand By Me, but also with lengthy scenes of singing and dancing. with accompaniment. Broadcast live by the Almeida theater and written by Lolita Chakrabarti, it is also a strange story, at once about everything and nothing, with as much soap opera feel as a theater script. However, it works and creates a chemistry between the actors that not even the two-meter rule can spoil.
In some ways, it’s an uneven story whose plot feels artificial, but is elevated by the intensity and passion of the performances. Sapani, in particular, rises up in every scene and has a remarkably strong singing voice, while Gil de Lester is a softer and more inscrutable character, played with charm.
Directed wittily by Blanche McIntyre in conditions of social distancing, Hymn is not just a bromance, but about fathers, sons, siblings, and the everyday vernacular of male friendship: how men express their intimacies or stay hidden. Its themes are consistent with news reports about depression, drinking and high suicide rates among men, but the drama never announces its problems. It remains a miniature study of Benny and Gilbert from start to finish.
In the early part of their friendship, they often do something else: drink, spar at the gym, dance to old LPs. They shake their middle-aged hips and try to breakdancing to the beat of Will Smith, Chic, the Temptations, and these scenes are up close, physical, and gleefully silly. Being a British black man seems to be an undercover theme of the drama as well. Again, it is never stated, but mentioned in passing: how Gilbert’s father, born in Jamaica, instilled the family spirit of “working twice as hard”; the ways in which the official history of the sugar plantations so often fails to mention slavery; how a woman labels Gilbert as “aggressive” when addressing her politely; and further afield, violence in places like Mississippi. None of this is mentioned in the context of race, but it is an unspoken understanding, and much more powerful for the ellipses that surround it.
The staging is as striking as it is sober. There is very little on the set: a piano with a metronome, portable boxes with accessories inside, a table and chairs that double as a pub. Lighting designer Prema Mehta uses light and darkness intelligently to enhance drama and delicately reminds us of its theatricality without the need to send the camera into the auditorium. The sound, orchestrated by Gregory Clarke, also feels magnified: clear, loud and dramatic, from the ticking of the metronome to the actor’s voices.
Sapani and Lester inhabit this setting so fully that they bring to life this little story of two men who become friends. It’s a strange bromance, but its risks are worth it.
• The hymn is available online until February 21.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism