Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh brings her acting chops to the Traverse in a one-woman play written for her by the man who knows her best – her husband.

In 2016 Julie Hesmondhalgh’s husband, the writer and actor Ian Kershaw, gave her an unusual and very special Christmas present: a one-woman play.

Going back to theatre has been lovely. Its my happy placeClick To Tweet

“I was always telling him he should write something we could do together, something small and low tech that we could tour even when we were in our seventies,” says Hesmondhalgh, whose years in Coronation Street as Hayley Cropper, the first transgender character in a British soap, and subsequent roles in Happy Valley and Broadchurch, have made her one of TV’s most familiar faces. “I’d noticed that he kept slipping away for an hour here and there, but it was still a lovely surprise.”

That Christmas gift, the optimistically titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World… is at the Traverse this festival, directed by Raz Shaw. Reports from a brief try-out at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2017 suggest that Hesmondhalgh may still be touring this time-travelling love story set on Preston Road when she is a centenarian.

For me, theatre is a communal thing. I love that feeling you get (when it’s really working) that we are all in this together, we are part of this instant community which has been created in this single space.Click To Tweet

The Greatest Play takes its inspiration from another gift, one also made to the future. The Golden Records are two discs that were blasted into space by NASA in 1977 on the Voyager space probes.

Their intention was to give alien life a sense of what Earth is like. The records include the sounds of humpback whales and birds, music by Bach and Chuck Berry, greetings in 60 languages and images of people going about their daily lives.

The records are designed to be indestructible. Sending them into deepest space suggests a touching human faith in the idea that perhaps, as Hesmondhalgh says, “we are not alone.” That’s one of the themes of Greatest Play, which begins with a man waking up to find the world has stopped. 

If the show’s interest in multiverses owes something to Nick Payne’s Constellations, Julie Hesmondhalgh puts it’s simple storytelling style closer to Daniel Kitson’s intricately spun tales, and Duncan MacMillan and Johnny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing.

“I love the fact that it speaks so directly to the audience. For me, theatre is a communal thing. I love that feeling you get (when it’s really working) that we are all in this together, we are part of this instant community which has been created in this single space.”

But for all her love of theatre, Julie Hesmondhalgh was almost lost to it. She adored playing Hayley and couldn’t imagine ever leaving Corrie.

“I thought I’d be carried out in a box. The people were brilliant, the writing was beautiful, and it was an acting job that came with holidays. It was such a great place to be as an older actress too. I thought I had lost all ambition to go back to the theatre.”

“Something I thought was dead in me was only sleeping.” Click To Tweet

But she knew Sylvia Lancaster, the mother of Sophie, the young woman kicked to death by a group of teenagers in a Lancashire Park in 2007 simply because, dressed as a goth, she looked different. In 2012, when Manchester’s Royal Exchange decided to stage Simon Armitage’s unbearably moving poetic elegy, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, Hesmondhalgh knew she couldn’t refuse the role of Sylvia.

While doing the play she realised, “Something I thought was dead in me was only sleeping.” By Christmas she had told Coronation Street she was leaving. She thought she might never work again, but she has been in demand not just for TV but also at theatres from the Royal Court to the Royal Exchange.

“I think people thought that I’d just go off and do pantomime, but going back to theatre has been lovely. It’s my happy place.”

Not that working with husband Ian on The Greatest Play has been all plain sailing. Julie Hesmondhalgh always reads all of Kershaw’s work, casting herself as her husband’s unofficial script editor.

“I’ve always been his red pen,” she says. So, as soon as she got into the rehearsal room, she started editing and changing the lines. “Ian and Raz didn’t say anything. But after a few days I understood that what Ian had written was way better than all my rewrites. They were just waiting quietly for me to realise it myself. The pair of them played me like a violin.”

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