‘Hymn’ Explores The Pressure Men Feel In Juggling The Many Faces Of Manhood: Review

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Hymn is the story of step brothers, Gilbert and Benny, discovering each other after the passing of their father. Their father lived a less than ‘holy’ life, having an extra-marital affair and telling his mistress to never show her face again once she became pregnant with Benny. On the eve of his 50th birthday Benny catches the end of Augustus Clarence Jones’ funeral and meets his step brother Gilbert. The play sheds light on them trying to create a relationship in the midst of both men failing to juggle their many faces individually.  

The play was extremely well cast, featuring Adrian Lester as Gilbert, and Danny Sapani as Benny. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti said she intentionally chose “two [actors] at the top of their game”. The energy between them is subtle yet deep at times, particularly during moments of reflection about childhood. Benny opens up to Gilbert about spending some time in foster care, something he has only really talked to his wife about in time past. At others times the energy between them is electric and explosive, like when they sing ‘Lean On Me’ in harmony to close Augustus’ funeral, or take it in turns to breakdance as they rummage through old clothes in Benny’s attic looking for party costumes. The chemistry between the two is further enhanced by some of the ways the play reflected the actors’ lives. Adrian said he could see a lot of his family in the play and Danny said indeed he has a sister called Rose, a history of mental health in his family and his father had passed away.  

Aside from the incredible acting, what made the play relatable to everyday life was how well it tackled the prominent themes of grief, identity crisis, partial self-discovery, and the many faces of manhood that men juggle. This masculine juggling act is first expressed in the life we understand their father to have lived through Gilbert’s eulogy. Faith, family, mistresses and step children were simply too much to juggle, and Augustus chose to drop some of his act—Benny and his mum. Benny has never felt good enough because Augustus abandoned him, leaving him a broken son and challenged father. Gilbert loses £800,000 in attempting to set up a new business venture with Benny. Gilbert’s response is to talk about the successes of his older sisters and reminisce about his father constantly calling him an “idiot”. His identities as a businessman and brother fall under severe attack, leading him down a dark path. 

Benny and Gilbert’s mental struggles are exemplified by the sudden changes in music and lighting when something critical or monumental is about to take place in the play. It is almost as though the music masks the pain and anguish the brothers sometimes feel—the music almost desensitises them to the juggling act they are engaged in. Benny is rattled when the results of the DNA test confirming they are brothers comes in, and before the audience hears the results, Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life’ starts playing and a new scene is born. The distractions that cover the brothers’ fragile mental states, and the difficulties they have in juggling their many faces, abruptly disappear when Gilbert dies by suicide. 

Hymn highlights the importance of mental health for men in particular and the cost of not giving up the juggling game of manhood for self-development, mentally and emotionally, at times. Eventually the juggling has to stop, but death shouldn’t be the cause.    

Hymn is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 13 August 2021.

Words by Solape Alatise 


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Image: Hymn at the Almeida. Credit Marc Brenner

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