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The Most Precious of Goods at Marylebone Theatre

A bleak story – it was, after all, set in the Second World War – it ebbed and flowed, depending on the level of imminent danger. But towards the end, the narrator (Samantha Spiro), who isn’t the same as the author, makes a strong assertion. The ‘all persons fictitious’ disclaimer is fairly common when it comes to works of fiction, mostly to mitigate against possible libel action. But here, the disclaimer goes much further, going through the various aspects of the story, and emphasising that: “None of this, none of this happened, none of this is true.

Samantha Spiro - The Most Precious of Goods - Marylebone Theatre - Photo credit Beresford Hodge.
Samantha Spiro – The Most Precious of Goods – Marylebone Theatre – Photo credit Beresford Hodge.

It took me a while to get my head around that: I wondered what the writer, Jean-Claude Grumberg, was trying to achieve with a systematic demolition of the fairytale world he took the time and effort to create. But by bringing the audience back to reality, it is being asked to consider whether a hopeful Holocaust story could be realistic. Without giving too much away, this story is about as plausible as War Horse – that in all the millions of people displaced, millions of others fighting, millions of others dead, what is the credible possibility that two living beings, separated by war, would be reunited in this life? Close to nil. The difference with this story, however, is that it is aware of how ridiculously unlikely it is, even if there are real-world representational details, such as post-work drinks at a pub, and people in despair, wishing the war would just end.

This stage adaptation, if one can call it that, doesn’t attempt to dramatize Grumberg’s book. There are no costumes to speak of. Spiro’s narrator does not adopt a wide range of different voices and accents for the various characters in the story. The set is made up of some old suitcases piled one on top of another, on either side of the stage, with a large screen in the middle, used to project various still images. Ultimately, though, this could be a radio play (if it hasn’t been done already), especially with the music from cellist Gemma Rosefield, more than suitably atmospheric.

Spiro reads from a copy of Nicolas Kent’s translation of the French novella, only addressing the audience and looking directly at them towards the very end. Despite the backdrop of war, the story is told in a calm and collected manner. A lot of the themes, such as love, loyalty and human resilience, have been explored many times before. But this story is particularly thought-provoking in the world in which we live today, its conclusions having far-reaching implications. Can anything we are told these days be considered trustworthy without further investigation? I’m reminded of a post I once saw on social media: “Question everything!” Underneath someone had commented, “Why?

This is deep-level thinking, and yes, one needs to be in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate a show like this, telling a story as heartening as it is horrific. A reflective and admirably affecting production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Winter 1943, somewhere in war-torn Eastern Europe: a poor woodcutter’s wife finds a little bundle thrown in the snow from a moving goods train. It contains something for which she has always yearned, but…

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s best-selling French language novella, The Most Precious of Goods, is story-telling at its most profound and has been translated into 20 languages.

Told with a fairy tale-like lyricism, this gripping story of love and hope, set against the terrible backdrop of the Holocaust, reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.

Jean-Claude Grumberg – Writer
Nicolas Kent – Director/Translator
Carly Brownbridge – Designer
Judy Goldhill – Projected Photography
Matt Eagland – Lighting Designer

‍‍‍The Most Precious of Goods opens at the Marylebone Theatre on 22nd January 2024 to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January).

Samantha Spiro
Gemma Rosefield

The Most Precious of Goods


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