By Carol Rocamora . . .
“Papa was a rolling stone…” goes the song in the background. And that’s what Gil discovers at his father’s funeral, when a stranger named Benny appears, declaring to be Gil’s brother (from another mother).
This startling first encounter blossoms into a beautiful love story between two newly-found siblings, as told by Lolita Chakrabarti in Hymn, her moving new play now streaming on the Almeida Theatre’s website.
We follow these two middle-aged men over the year after their dramatic meeting, as they get to know one another and reconstruct a childhood and adolescence they never shared. They are two richly drawn characters, and the emotional hour and a half we spend with them is heart-warming and uplifting… Until it isn’t…
As the scenes fly by, they share details of their lives. Gil is the youngest of four (until Benny shows up) in a comfortable, middle class Black family on the outskirts of London. Well-educated and the family favorite, Gil was his father’s protégé; they worked together in his father’s dry-cleaning business and had hopes to expand it. Gil’s three older (and successful) sisters dote on him.
Benny’s story is different. He never knew Augustus Clarence Jones (“Gus”), their father. Gil is shocked when Benny reveals that Gus had an affair with Benny’s mother. According to Benny, after he was born, his mother went to Gus’s house, saw it, and left, shattered. She eventually broke down, and Benny went into “care.” Benny grew up orphaned and underprivileged.
Once Gil accepts the idea of having a brother just six days younger, their blood bond thickens. They share activities together that their father loved – like exercising at the gym and boxing. They celebrate Benny’s 50th birthday in Gil’s basement, trying on Afro wigs and spangled sweaters, bonding, clowning, drinking and dancing. They share low moments too – Benny confides in Gil about his young, rebellious teenage son recently arrested for protesting. Benny also reveals that he and his wife have needed marital therapy. Gil’s response as the “big brother” is deeply compassionate. “I wish Dad had known you – that was his biggest loss.”
As in all love stories, there are high hopes. They meet each other’s family members. Gil proposes they go into business together – “Jones and Sons” – and they both invest. Giddy with excitement, they examine new goods they’ve ordered for their store, and Benny proudly tries on a flashy new jacket.
And then, an event happens that changes the course of their relationship – no spoiler, I promise. It’s well worth discovering– for the power of a story of genuine brotherhood and the beautiful chemistry between Adrian Lester (Gil) and Danny Sapani (Benny). In a post-performance discussion, Chakrabarti reveals that she wrote the roles expressly for these two celebrated actors of British stage and film. Gil, played by Adrian Lester (the playwright’s husband), is charming and expansive, full of feeling for his new younger brother. Benny, played by Danny Sapani, is vulnerable and grateful, thrilled by the new relationship that is changing his life. Watching these two skilled performers sing “Lean on me” together, seeing them sway to “I could have danced all night,” is a pure joy.
Blanche McIntyre’s direction is meticulous on the bare Almeida stage, decorated only with a piano and a metronome. The ticking of the latter is a symbol of the finite time these newly united brothers will have together. (Set and costumes are by Miriam Buether; movement is by Robia Milliner musical direction is by D. J. Wade).
In the discussion, Chakrabarti speaks of how the actors, because of COVID restrictions, were not allowed to touch each other during rehearsal or performance. But the genuine feeling of love and intimacy generated between these two generous performers is palpable – and will bring you much needed warmth in these sad days of isolation. Thanks to these dedicated artists, we’re all still together in the theatre, even on-line.
Hymn, by Lolita Chakabarti, directed by Blanche McIntyre, now streaming March 3 thru 9 on the Almeida Theatre website, www.almeida.co.uk