The Most Precious of Goods

Reviewer's rating

Very few performances capture the audience’s attention, from start to finish. This one does. It holds our attention on centre stage for the full 80 minutes duration of this thought-provoking plot.  The unfolding drama’s performance is staged at the refurbished Art Nouveau Marylebone theatre, a stone’s throw from the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Here, everyone knows who done it, the questions are not even why murders were committed, but merely something so beautifully human that unfolds from the tiny bundle found on the hight snow, somewhere near the road to hell – a few months old baby girl rapped in a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl). Winter 1943.

It is compelling and gripping. In the packed auditorium, you could hear a pin drop at any point of the performance.

The Most Precious of Goods is based on Jean-Claude Grunberg novella known as ‘The Most Precious Cargo’. For this production, the novella was translated from French and adapted for stage by the director Nicolas Kent. The realisation on stage is superbly crafted and excellently directed.

The Holocaust is the backdrop. A play on this ineffably painful subject could deter audiences who are seeking entertainment. Grunberg’s novella successfully challenges readers and Kent’s adaptation duly vindicates this challenge.  The use of a fairytale format, a cross between the Brothers Grimm and the Hans Christian Andersen works well  throughout the performance.

 The opening of the show is a prelude that draws the audience in:

‘Once upon a time in a forest there was a poor woodcutter and his wife,’ starts Samantha.

A very brief sound erupts from the cello, in response. One bar.

‘No, don’t worry, this is no “Babes in the Wood” tale. Like you, I can’t stand that stupid story. Who ever heard of parents abandoning their children because they couldn’t feed them?’

The stage is dominated by the narrator, Samantha Spiro, twice a Laurence Olivier Award laureate for Best Actress in A Musical. The dialogue involving the different characters in the narrative comes to life through Spiro’s performing skills as a storyteller. Effortlessly the plot unfolds and characters appear like shadows, provoke and splash colour that makes them momentarily visible.  Kent introduces a splash of music into the story telling. It does not accompany the narration but bursts in from a cello skilfully played by Gemma Rosefield. She plays only a bar or two from different cello pieces, to punctuate the mood. Her 25 or 26 interventions into the storytelling fail to support the narrative nor add to the atmosphere.

The cello is an inspired choice, yet the music did not always feel apt for the scene and therefore not as effective as it could have been. Occasionally there is a sense of urgency in the brief pieces, and they are left hanging in the air like a squiggle on a page, failing to mobilise or add much to the atmosphere.  There was, for instance, a snippet from Bach’s cello suite No 1. A classic example where the music could have enhanced the narrative and would have contributed to the emotional journey, but the brevity of the bars played felt like unfinished sentences. Having said that, it may be just what the narrative is all about – an unfinished story in a world where the victims were not allowed to fulfil their lives.

A handful black and white images depicting the long winter and the coming of spring and something of the location, were projected, like a defining backdrop for an intriguing scene that is unfolding. 

This production is a gentle introduction to the power of kindness in the heart of darkness, and maybe kindness even from the most unlikely people.

At Marylebone Theatre until 03 February 2024

Narrator Samantha Spiro

Cellist Gemma Rosefield

Director Nicolas Kent