Julie Hesmondhalgh knows a fair bit about famous streets. After all, she spent 16 years on Britain’s most famous thoroughfare playing Hayley Cropper. Now, four years after leaving the Corrie cobbles for good, she’s back on another seemingly ordinary avenue: Preston Road.

Like Coronation Street, there’s plenty of activity behind the twitching net curtains, as the audience in the Royal Exchange Studio discovers during 70 minutes of glorious theatre. In a pared back intimate space with only a clutch of shoeboxes and bare light bulbs for company, Hesmondhalgh recounts the story of Tom and Sara, two lonely 20-somethings awake at 4.40am on an otherwise unremarkable night. With their ‘ironic’ band t-shirts and a brooding sense that their lives consist of nothing more than treading water, they have more in common than they know.

Written by Hesmondhalgh‘s partner, Ian Kershaw, The Greatest Play in the History of the World… is that theatrical rarity: a play which lives up to its name. In little over an hour, Kershaw expertly weaves recurring themes throughout Hesmondhalgh’s monologue, from the meaning of love and the endless possibilities of science to the nuances of individual lives and the things that make us happy. This is a small picture writ large, as is made clear by the pre-recorded audio about the Golden Records, two phonograph discs sent up with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 containing selected sounds and images about life on Earth.

Julie Hesmondhalgh by Jonathan KeenanKershaw writes about people in the same way that Laurie Lee writes about nature. Sentences are squashed full of exquisite observation, replete with revealing detail and heart-breaking beauty. The mundane is made both extraordinary and universal. By the end of the play, tears glisten in the eyes of many audience members, but Kershaw’s skill is such that these are tears of love and hope. He should bottle his talent – he’d make a fortune.

Hesmondhalgh, meanwhile, is flawless. Clad in a mustard yellow cardigan, she flits up and down the sparkly blue carpet, one minute adopting the persona of housebound Tom, the next his neighbour who is close to losing her battle with an un-named disease. Of course, Hesmondhalgh is no stranger to wringing emotion from her audience, whether it’s as Sophie Lancaster’s mother in Black Roses or as abuse victim Trish in Broadchurch. But this time it’s a gentle crescendo of feeling which results in a resolutely uplifting ending. Having said that, I could watch Hesmondhalgh read a shopping list and still want to give her a hug.

There are plaudits, too, for director Raz Shaw and the rest of the crew. But this show belongs to Hesmondhalgh and Kershaw. Thanks to their combined efforts I emerged from the auditorium with thoughts of my five-year-old niece in my head and, not to overstate matters, a tear on my cheek. Go and see this play and I guarantee you’ll leave thinking of what – or who – you love most. 

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

Photos of the play by Jonathan Keenan

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Julie Hesmondhalgh by Jonathan KeenanIf you want to see this show, you’ll have to be quick: The Greatest Play in the History of the World… is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until November 12, 2017. For tickets, click here.