Given the circumstances, there's been a lot of good theatre to emerge from lockdown, but much of it has felt slightly airless, conscious of the oddity of its making. Hymn, a new play from Lolita Chakrabarti, live streamed from an empty Almeida, is notable because it is so full of life.
That's even more remarkable given that it opens and closes with a eulogy at a funeral. In the first, Gil (Adrian Lester), illuminated by a single shaft of light, is paying tribute to his dad, his "hero", a regular churchgoer, a pillar of the community. At the conclusion, Benny (Danny Sapani) comes up to him and raises the possibility that this really good man" might have fathered a child with a vulnerable woman and then abandoned her. The men, who are only six-weeks apart in age, could be brothers.
From there this two-hander spins off into an involving and emotional study of the friendship that develops between the two contrasting figures. At first it pivots on Gil's apparent confidence and ease butting against Benny's hesitation; his family troubles have meant he has spent a lot of time in care as a child, and Sapani's face as he begins to talk of his background, registers every ounce of pain it has caused him. You feel him pulled towards the security this other family offers.
But gradually, the relationship balances out. Benny's boxing training gives Gilbert a place to let go; he has a grounded wisdom that Gilbert lacks. Gilbert's kindness helps Benny's children. At the centre of the play is a long, exhilarating encounter when the two men don the clothes and put on the soundtrack of their '80s youth and sing and dance together to "Rapper's Delight" and Toots and the Maytals. It's an astonishing scene, ostensibly choreographed by Robia Milliner but the moves feel as if they are the actors' own. Both are accomplished dancers, and they catch in that moment the sense of ageing bodies coming back to life, as they recall the steps and shapes that once delighted them.
As they dance together, there's a sense of awakening, of a bond deeper than words. They also provide the soundtrack to the play, Sapani's rich voice complementing Lester's lighter tones in "Lean on Me", Lester playing piano. Wonderful in itself, this music making (under the direction of DJ Walde) embodies the play's contention that two men can find a "sympathetic resonance" that reverberates beyond the circumstances of their lives. Gil's father has told him that "Music is silence, sound and time" and this musical imagery runs through the play, representing another tie beyond words. Benny's children are named after jazz greats, to inspire them to excellence. Miles Davis is quoted in the programme: "I'll play it first and tell you what it is later."
These ideas, and another meditative fugue about the relationship between fathers and their sons that begins to play in the background, are perhaps a little too much engulfed in a narrative that is too predictable in its denouement. Any reader of thrillers will know where we are heading. Chakrabarti said in a Q & A after the opening night, that she wanted to give viewers a story that would engross them, and that is certainly true, but it also means she sacrifices something of the rich subtlety she has created.
But her play is served by a production that feels about as good as it can get: Prema Mehta's lighting and Gregory Clarke's soundscape combine with Miriam Buether's set, to build pictures of entire scenes with the simplest of means. Blanche McIntyre's direction is supremely sensitive to the needs of both the camera and the drama.
As for the performances, they are just mind-blowingly excellent. Given that the two men never come within two metres of each other, and are not allowed to touch, their ability to communicate the love and trust that builds between them is exceptional. They effortlessly embody the qualities of the characters they play, absorbing you in their story, seeming to take you into their minds. It's an incredibly moving experience, one that can only be experienced until February 21. It will make you even more keen to get back into a theatre, but it is quite something in itself.