Not many shows begin with a grinning Italian trying to milk members of the audience (never been gladder we didn’t sit on the front row), but this wry, witty, gentle show just wants to tell you a story (several, actually), and get you as excited about stories and people and human nature as its exuberant cast are. When the cast sticks to simple, brilliant storytelling, it is very successful. You can feel the joy of sharing these stories vibrating from them, filling the Arcola’s tiny space with tales from Japan, Senegal, India, France and others.
This really is story-telling at its best – soothing, playful, laugh-out-loud funny, the show is superb. Kathryn Hunter is extraordinary, as ever. Without wishing to sound pompous, it really does feel like a privilege to watch her, especially in such a small space – her contortions made me wince, her dancing is beautiful. In short, she is utterly mesmerising. You physically cannot look away, and her deep, soothing voice is captivating.
Patrice Naiambana is another performer who shines. His stage presence is commanding to the point where he would threaten to overshadow lesser compatriots. His movement is precise but fluid, his voice mellifluous, and his stories charming. He’d be better off sticking to Gilles Aufay’s poetic script and dropping the ad libs, but he is a wonderfully big presence in a small space. Marcello Magni (who, the programme notes inform, rather delightfully also voices Pingu!) switches from clowning to serious in a blink, and is charismatic and clever as a performer. I wonder if his dual role as both actor and director has diluted his energy a tad – there were moments that could have benefitted from a totally outside eye, perhaps, which Magni was too close to to see.
The music is stunning, and an integral part of the performance. Tunde Jegede on kora and cello plays skillfully, making the liquid, magical sounds suit the story and mood perfectly. David Bartholomew Soroczynski is charming as both actor and musician, lending a vibrancy to proceedings with his expert accordion playing.
Sophie Jump’s design is simple in the extreme, putting the pressure on the ensemble to bring these worlds to life, a challenge they rise to brilliantly. The stories don’t always slot together as neatly as one would like, but they are each a complete world on their own, which is impressive in itself. The inventive, physical style takes us from French hospital to Senegalese village effortlessly, and the ensemble works hard to share these stories.
The show is sweet without tipping into nauseating, and stays just the right side of moralising. Each story carries a message about humanity, but it is mostly dealt with lightly. Any hammering home of the central message would have deadened a light-hearted but poignant evening. Instead, we are offered these stories as things that are valuable in and of themselves, and left to draw our own conclusions about deeper meanings.
Tell Them That I Am Young and Beautiful is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 8th October. For more information and to book tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website here.