As one of London’s cosiest and most welcoming venues, it’s always a pleasure to see what the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill has in store for its audiences. And the Edge of Our Bodies – directed seamlessly by Artistic Director Chris Haydon, who has encouraged a performance that is no less than brilliant from Shannon Tarbet – is a real treat from this venue, whose work is consistently outstanding.

The Edge of Our Bodies is a unique coming-of-age story that sees sixteen-year-old Bernadette (Shannon Tarbet) recall ditching class at her elite boarding school, Whitney Academy, to journey into New York City to break the news to her boyfriend that she is pregnant. En route she encounters a world that is confusing, contradictory, at times predatory and at others kind, to profound effect by the story’s end. Bernadette’s recollection takes place on the backdrop of the set of Whitney’s production of Genet’s The Maids, with the past and present modes of storytelling effortlessly woven together by playwright Adam Rapp’s spellbinding storytelling and delivered in Haydon’s clear and precise direction. The result is a compelling piece of theatre, one which whispers to rather than shouts at its audience, and is all the more enjoyable for it.

Indeed, The Edge of Our Bodies is an unusual play: Rapp’s powerful words create a theatrical experience that is hard to define. While it uses the well-known one-woman show format, with Bernadette at times addressing the audience and at others absorbed in the world of her story, the piece also feels slightly off-kilter – it refuses to adhere to our staunch British rules of form and structure. The effect is that The Edge of Our Bodies feels somewhat ethereal, or magical, and, for its wonderful subtlety, works on its audience in an almost subliminal way. While there are some moments where the audience can’t be sure where they are, when this is happening and why, the play carries them with its gentle fluidity and the strong heart that beats through it: Bernadette, the people she encounters, and the worldliness she gains. The play never tells the audience what they ought to think, feel or know, and its quiet defiance of the traditional rules and boundaries of storytelling make us feel all the more involved, complicit in its telling.

Moreover, Shannon Tarbet as Bernadette is a wonderful storyteller: few performers, particularly at such a young age, could hold the stage with such quiet confidence. Tarbet never needs to demand our attention, nor to work to engage us; instead, she effortlessly draws us into her story and guides us through her world, painting beautifully vivid pictures of her experience. Moreover, Tarbet laces the piece with dry humour and knowing moments that immediately bring the audience on side: these bursts of effervescent youth tempered with a wisdom beyond her years make Bernadette a fascinating heroine.

As well as powerful writing, directing and performances, the design elements of The Edge Of Our Bodies cannot go without mention: the production as a whole is immaculately put together by a team that is clearly highly skilled. Lily Arnold’s design is incredibly striking, offering a collage of gorgeous ornate mirrors, colourful flowerbeds and antique furniture on a raked wooden stage, creating an atmosphere of intrigue and effectively setting the tone for the piece. George Dennis’s sound design brings a layer of intensity to the piece that perfectly underpins Bernadette’s youth and passion, and Mark Howland’s lights are wonderfully atmospheric, shifting from inviting to eerie at just the right moments, so that the audience feels truly transported.

The Edge of Our Bodies is a fascinating play brought to life with sensitivity, confidence, detail and vivid colour: a masterclass in theatre-making from this brilliant little venue that clearly attracts London’s brightest talent. Make sure you don’t miss this very special work.

The Edge of Our Bodies is playing at the Gate Theatre until 18 October. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo (c) Bill Knight.