Review by Daz Gale
One of the greatest aspects of theatre is its ability to tell a story and that is at the heart of the latest production to open at Marylebone Theatre. Describing itself as “story-telling at its most profound”, The Most Precious Of Goods has nothing more than a narrator, a cellist and some imagery to convey this stage adaptation. A slightly different watch than the kind of show I usually go to, but would I find this stripped back narrative approach as captivating?
Jean-Claude Grumberg’s best-selling French language novella has been brought to the stage, directed and translated by Nicolas Kent, carefully making sure to retain the power of the original words. The Most Precious Of Goods is set in Eastern Europe in winter 1943 as a poor woodcutter’s wife finds a bundle thrown into the snow from a moving goods train. The goods on this train are people themselves and the bundle contains a baby, which she risks everything for to raise as her own. Two stories are read out – that of the poor woodcutter’s wife and her newly found child, and that of the child’s original family both before and after they gave up the baby.
Told in a manner akin to a fairytale is an inspired albeit unconventional approach. The subject matter is dark and disturbing at times, but the writing remains as if you are reading a classic fantastical story to a child. The impact of this is effective, with no bells or whistles required – just the powerful words which in turn paint a picture in our heads and remind us of the horrific circumstances of the Holocaust. As the tone shifts from more carefree and brief happier moments to the horrors that unfold throughout the reading, the end proves to be very powerful as the narrator debates with herself whether there is truth to the story at all in a thought provoking sequence.
At its best, The Most Precious of Goods is storytelling at its finest. A few unexpected laughs litter the story and its message of hope and humanity are something that feels very much needed in the world today. While its backdrop may be the Holocaust, coinciding with National Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday 27th January, the essence of the story is one that can be transported anywhere, becoming instantly relatable no matter your own circumstances or family history. The words are griping, the story is powerful and the message lingers in your head long after you leave the theatre. I can’t recall an audience ever being so reluctant to leave after the show has finished before, glues to their seats in resolute silence as the story they have just watched leaves a lasting impact.
Samantha Spiro stars as the narrator of the story – a rather last minute addition after the need to replace Allan Corduner. A true star in every sense, Samantha ensured the audience hung on her every word as she maximised all of the emotion and gravitas of the story to give it a performance worthy of its writing. Utterly charismatic and captivating, she was marvellous to watch whether she was static in her seat reading from her book or pacing the stage. There may have been the odd fumble of a line, but that is to be expected given the last-minute nature of her casting, and she should be commended for stepping in so suddenly to give this story the retelling it deserves.
The only other person on that stage was Gemma Rosefield, a cellist who accompanied Samantha with music throughout the story – sometimes in the background as Samantha spoke, and sometimes filling the silence with atmospheric playing. This element added something different to the show, but was a great way to underpin the words of the story. Carly Brownbridge’s design turned the stage of Marylebone Theatre into the forest the poor woodcutter’s wife finds herself in, with a beautiful use of projected photography from Judy Goldhill creating a sense of poignancy in images that reflected the narrator’s words.
There are times in our history that should never be forgotten, with stories passed down from generation to generation. As the number of people who were alive during the second World War ever decreases, stories like The Most Precious Of Goods are here to remind us of the tragic loss of so many people and keep their memory alive. A testament to the art and power of storytelling, this riveting and thought-provoking performance is a fitting example of why these stories are so important to be told, and the power it can hold when they are told as well as this.
The Most Precious Of Goods plays at Marylebone Theatre until 3rd February. Tickets from www.marylebonetheatre.com
Photos by Beresford Hodge