When Julie Hesmondhalgh left Coronation Street in 2014 after playing Hayley Cropper for sixteen years, she didn’t have a clue what would happen next. After being on the nation’s TV screens every night, suddenly she was a jobbing actor again. The fact that Hayley herself had become iconic as the first serious depiction of a trans character in mainstream TV drama made things potentially even harder. Given that Hesmondhalgh is both a brilliant actress and clearly one of the warmest people to walk this earth, she needn’t have worried. As it is, what happened next saw the Accrington-born actress come home on very level.
“I asked my husband to write me a play,” says Hesmondhalgh of her request to her actor/writer hubby Ian Kershaw, whose stage work has been seen at theatres including the Royal Exchange, Manchester and the Lowry, Salford, while TV credits include Shameless, EastEnders, and of course Corrie. “I said to him, whatever it is, write it so it doesn’t have to be a particular age, so when we’re in our seventies we can bring it out and take it anywhere.”
The result is the wonderfully titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World…, a seventy-minute charm offensive running throughout August at the Traverse Theatre. In what is essentially a piece of dramatised story-telling, Hesmondhalgh confides what happens in the small hours one night on the Preston Road in Manchester when time appears to stand still at 4.40am precisely. Out of this freak occurrence comes a series of inter-connected incidents that bring people together in unexpected ways.
“It’s a love story,” Hesmondhalgh says. “It’s about love, fate and what’s meant to be and what’s not meant to be.”
Key to Kershaw’s play is The Golden Record, the vinyl compilation of sounds from earth intended as a time capsule launched into space by NASA on the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 lest any extra-terrestrials stumble upon it.
“It’s about how we tell the story of earth to others,” says `Hesmondhalgh of the show, co-produced by Tara Finney Productions and the Royal Exchange. The latter of these is the second strand of what is essentially a family affair.
“The Royal Exchange is my theatre, really,” Hesmondhalgh says. “It’s the theatre I grew up watching stuff when I was a teenager, and I did Mother Courage there, so it really does feel like coming home.”
On one level, Mother Courage is a long way from Hayley. Both, however, are mighty roles.
“I thought I’d be at Corrie forever,” says Hesmondhalgh, “but leaving set me off on a different path. I didn’t know how things were going to go, but the first thing I got offered was a Simon Stephens play. I hadn’t done theatre for years, and was really scared of it, and then I did a stage version of a play I’d done on the radio called The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, and I thought seriously about leaving Corrie then. In the end it was the perfect time to go. I loved playing Hayley, but as a cis woman playing a trans man, I think eventually that would have become an anachronism, but I’m really proud of what we did with Hayley. I don’t think it can be underestimated how much art, especially popular art, can change attitudes. People were really rooting for Hayley and Roy, and even though it was just me in my red anorak, I think it made a huge difference.”
Beyond The Greatest Play in the History of the World…, Hesmondhalgh will shortly be seen in the new series of Sharon Horgon and Rob Delaney’s comedy drama, Catastrophe, as well as in Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo. As for The Greatest Play in the History of the World…, “It leaves you thinking about life,” she says, “and about what legacy we all leave behind, but in a funny way.”
The Greatest Play in the History of the World…, Traverse Theatre until August 26, various times.
The Herald, August 9th 2018