Hymns originates from a late nineties collaboration between writer Chris O’Connell, and renowned physical theatre companies Frantic Assembly and DV8. Frantic Assembly initiated the devising process in response to the startling statistics surrounding the number of young men committing suicide. The four male characters in Hymns come together in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend, living out their grief and testing the limits of their friendships; all while confined by a framework of masculinity which shapes their every response. As they struggle to find the words to express their suffering, physicality takes over as the means to communicate the cauldron of emotions and feelings triggered by the suicide – sorrow, anger, guilt and accusations of blame all coming bubbling to the surface as they throw themselves around the stage.
Anyone who has seen the work of Frantic Assembly and DV8 will know this is a huge challenge for a student cast and director to take on, let alone a group with no training in physical theatre or dance. The results are mixed – in the strongest sections, there are impressive feats of physicality and some moving performances by each of the four “hims”. There are excellent renditions of Frantic Assembly’s “Chair Duets”, and clever uses of some Berkovian slow-motion action. However much of the first half of the production suffers from a lack of cohesion, and there is a distinct sense of trying to do too much – the writing of “unspoken” words on the floor in chalk seems like an interesting exercise best left in the rehearsal room, and a fight sequence using Capoeira moves does not need the addition of a strobe light to be effective. The constant movement of furniture and numerous lighting changes feel clunky and interrupt any sense of pace or flow.
The latter half of the play is stronger – there are far more moments where the text, physical storytelling and design come together in balance, and we witness the impetus for each stylistic physical movement in the thoughts and speech of the characters, rather than seeing actors concentrating on getting the steps right, or all putting their chairs down at the same time. As the four men circle and prod each other, the conflict between the desire to “just talk” and need to stay within the confines of conventional male conversation – cars, football, and women – builds, and eventually leads to revelations from each character. Scott (Sam Warren) is excellent as the member of the group who has moved away and feels most under pressure to resist opening up– despite the fact his need to maintain his version of masculinity may have played a role in his friend’s death. His monologue describing how he heard the news of the death is particularly poignant, as we observe his discomfort when the cracks begin to open to expose his vulnerability. Sam Hayward is also strong as Simon, struggling to find his voice and communicate his grief within the confines of his lower status position as the group’s joker. The cast as a whole are a talented ensemble, bringing focused energy to a play which thoughtfully examines four young men’s grief and their struggle to express it.
Reviewed for Left Lion