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Julie Hesmondhalgh brings The Greatest Play to Liverpool Playhouse

Julie Hesmondhalgh saw just one show last year – and the experience moved her to tears. Lots of tears.

It was a live performance of RashDash’s Don’t Go Back to Sleep lockdown album at HOME in Manchester, and the actress wondered if she would really want to see a piece about Covid in the midst of the pandemic.

The answer was yes, but there was more to the emotional experience than simply the subject matter.

“The experience of being in the theatre,” she explains. “I had those tears that don’t trickle prettily out of your face, they squirt out of your eyes! Because it was so moving to be back in that space and to experience it.

“So as an actor, I’m excited to be taking the play out on the road now.”

When she says the play she is talking about The Greatest Play in the History of the World, the one-woman show penned by Hesmondhalgh’s stage and screenwriter husband Ian Kershaw and which proved such a success when it was premiered in the Studio at the Royal Exchange, went on to win awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and then had an acclaimed run at the Trafalgar Studios in London.

It comes to the Liverpool Playhouse on June 29.

The play is described as ‘a universal love story that celebrates the human race in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy’.

Hesmondhalgh tells that story with nothing but a few props, including pairs of shoes which represent different characters.

Pre-pandemic some of that footwear would have been borrowed from people in the theatre, but that particular connection between actor and audience has had to be severed as part of a Covid-safe ‘new normal’.

Above and top: Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play in the History of the World

“No more shoe borrowing,” she confirms, “which is obviously really sad for anybody who has seen it before. But what I must remember is that most people won’t have seen it before.”

That is not the only change from previous iterations of the play. This tour is visiting much bigger venues than the previous studio spaces.

“It’s a very intimate studio show in its former incarnation, and now we’re playing in huge auditoriums,” Hesmondhalgh says. “Storyhouse is pretty big, but the Liverpool Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse are 700-seaters.

“It’s going to be very different in each one.

“But actually, I really love the scale of it because even though it’s a little story about a love story on a northern street, of course it’s also this huge story about life, the universe and everything, and space and time.”

And she reveals there is one other benefit – not being able to see her audience as clearly as she could in the intimate confines of a studio.

“I’ve never really enjoyed looking at people’s listening faces to be honest with you,” she admits. “It unnerves me. So looking out in this vast darkness is like ‘oh this is great. They feel like I’m talking to them, but I can’t see them’.”

Although she may only have seen one show in the last 12 months, the 51-year-old has kept busy working through the pandemic and has recently be seen in BBC One’s The Pact (above) which was filmed last autumn.

“It was a very new and again very challenging experience working under Covid conditions,” she says. “But it was a really brilliant bunch of people and we’re really proud of what we managed to do despite that.”

Now she’s back on stage and relishing the return to live work – and emphasises just how seriously theatres are taking their Covid-safe protocols.

“So I’d encourage people and let them know you’re going to be looked after and kept safe.”

The Greatest Play in the History of the World is at Liverpool Playhouse from June 29 to July 3.


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