Danny Sapani describes this play about an oddball male friendship as an “unconventional love story”. He’s one half of its solid, taking part in the gruff, complete school-educated Benny to Adrian Lester’s middle-class Gilbert, who he meets on the day of the latter’s father’s funeral. It’s a prickly encounter, however over the course of a 12 months, they turn into a part of every others’ households.
It’s unconventional in different methods too: a drama with a symbiotic musicality woven into it, in order that Sapani and Lester intermittently get away in music and dance, starting with an a cappella rendition of Stand By Me, but in addition with protracted scenes singing and dancing with accompaniment. Reside-streamed by the Almeida theatre and written by Lolita Chakrabarti, it’s also an odd story, without delay about all the things and nothing, with as a lot of a tv cleaning soap opera really feel as a script for theatre. But it really works and creates a chemistry between the actors that even the two-metre rule can not mar.
In some methods, it’s an uneven story whose plotting feels contrived, however which is elevated by the depth and fervour of the performances. Sapani, particularly, soars in each scene and has a remarkably robust singing voice, whereas Lester’s Gil is a smoother, extra inscrutable character, performed with attraction.
Artfully directed by Blanche McIntyre underneath socially distanced circumstances, Hymn is not only a bromance however about fathers, sons, brothers, and the each day vernacular of male friendship – how males categorical their intimacies or preserve themselves hidden. Its themes chime with the information stories of despair, drink and excessive suicide charges amongst males, however the drama by no means publicizes its points. It stays a miniature examine of Benny and Gilbert from starting to finish.
Within the early a part of their friendship, they’re typically doing one thing else – ingesting, sparring within the gymnasium, dancing to previous LPs. They shake their middle-aged hips and try and breakdance to Will Smith, Stylish, the Temptations, and these scenes are up shut, bodily and joyously foolish. Being a black British man appears to be a covert topic of the drama too. Once more it by no means declares itself, however is referred to in passing: how Gilbert’s Jamaican-born father inculcated a household ethos to “work twice as arduous”; the methods wherein official historical past on sugar plantations so typically fails to say slavery; how a girl labels Gilbert “aggressive” when he addresses her politely; and additional afield, violence in locations like Mississippi. None of that is named within the context of race however is an unstated understanding – and all of the extra highly effective for the ellipses round it.
The staging is as hanging as it’s spare. There’s little or no on set: a piano with a metronome, transportable containers with props inside, a desk and chairs that stand in for a pub. Lighting designer Prema Mehta makes use of gentle and darkish in intelligent methods to intensify the drama and delicately reminds us of its theatricality with no need to ship the digicam roving into the auditorium. The sound, orchestrated by Gregory Clarke, feels magnified too: clear, robust and dramatic, from the ticking of the metronome to the actor’s voices.
Sapani and Lester inhabit this stage so absolutely that they bring about this small story, of two males changing into buddies, absolutely to life. It’s an odd bromance, however its dangers repay.
• Hymn is available online till 21 February.