‘One Life’ actress Samantha Spiro to appear on stage in Holocaust play

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‘One Life’ actress Samantha Spiro to appear on stage in Holocaust play

The Most Precious of Goods opens at Marylebone Theatre in London next week

“Hope for humanity,” says Samantha Spiro, smiling broadly, when asked to sum up her two latest roles – one as the TV presenter Esther Rantzen, the other as the storyteller of a moving Holocaust play. “We can always do with that, but it feels like we really need it at the moment,” she adds.

Spiro can currently be seen in the film One Life, the stunning biopic about the British official Sir Nicholas Winton (brilliantly played by Sir Anthony Hopkins), who rescued 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before the Second World War. The film was at number two in the UK box office listings for last week.

Winton’s efforts, for which he would become known as the ‘British Schindler’, were largely unknown until 1988, when Ranzten revealed all during an emotionally charged episode of her BBC1 show That’s Life. Having wrapped on that project, Spiro, 55, was asked to step in for Allan Corduner, who is recovering from pneumonia, in the stage version of The Most Precious of Goods, which runs at the Marylebone Theatre from 22 January to 3 February.

Directed and translated by Nicholas Kent from the novella by the prolific French author Jean Claude Grumberg, the play is described by Spiro as a “beautifully told” story based on the events of the Holocaust. The cellist Gemma Rosefield adds to the atmosphere with her performance of a live score.

Samantha Spiro as Esther Rantzen in One Life

Spiro, who was born in Mill Hill and still lives in north London, is married to actor Mark Leadbetter, with whom she has two daughters. Over a video call she describes The Most Precious of Goods: “It’s very much like a fairy tale that takes place in the woods in 1942. There’s a woodcutter’s wife who wants to have a baby, but the gods don’t give her the luck of having a child.”

However, that all changes when a baby is carefully placed into the snow by a man on a train passing through the woods. “We see events through her eyes and she’s a real sort of innocent. She doesn’t understand the significance of the train that’s going through the woods taking people, before then seeing there’s an empty train coming back.”

As the audience will surmise, the act of placing the baby into the snow has been undertaken in the hope that the child’s life will be saved – a realisation that Spiro says is “harrowing and extremely moving, but I think also ultimately uplifting and hopeful about humanity”.

That Grumberg would base a fable against the setting of the Holocaust is unsurprising given that the 84-year-old is “precious goods” himself, having been born just two months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Families in southern France sheltered the young child from harm, helping him to survive. As an appendix to his novella reveals, Grumberg’s grandfather and father both died at Auschwitz. Only two of the 778 people taken on the same train as his grandfather and six of the 1,000 in his father’s convoy survived the war.

While Spiro’s direct family were not impacted by the Holocaust – both sides having settled in England during the late 1880s – she sees it as “a happy coincidence” that the two projects are out at the same time and values her roles in The Most Precious of Goods and One Life for “the resonance they have now”. Spiro adds: “The fact that I’m involved in all of that is a bit of a coincidence, but one I’m happy to be a part of because we constantly need reminding. “And it’s also rather a good way for the next generation to be told what happened in the Holocaust.”

Speaking of generations, Spiro recalls how both the cast and the crew of One Life found themselves profoundly moved while filming the scenes portraying Winton appearing on the broadcast of That’s Life. In the real version of events, Rantzen unveiled just how extensive Winton’s efforts had been in saving children’s lives. In the programme, Rantzen addressed the adults watching in the studio: “Can I just ask, is there anyone in the audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please?”

As Liza Epstein in Ridley Road

Several whole rows of audience members stood up, resulting in a visibly emotional Winton wiping away tears from his eyes. For the film version, Spiro reveals, the descendants of those saved by Winton – who died in 2015 – were invited to participate in the special scene.

“I can’t watch the original without crying,” Spiro admits – “and now watching it in a film, I forgot that I was in the scene and just bawled my eyes out all over again. Because it is just unbelievable and instead of using supporting artists in the audience, everybody in that auditorium was a descendant of one of the children that Nicholas Winton saved. “They flew in from all around the world – there was a family from Argentina and another one from South Africa. Everybody had been invited and it was an incredible reunion for all of them, as well as extremely moving for the rest of us. “When I ask that question, ‘Does anybody in the audience owe their life to Nicholas Winton?’ – well yes, they all did. It was quite a thing to be there.”

Equally special was acting alongside Hopkins, 86, who she describes as “very kind and a genius actor” and having “just this extraordinary energy for a man of any age, but especially one in his 80s”.

There was also a poignancy for Spiro in playing Ranzten, having had fond memories of watching That’s Life with her family in her younger years. “I wanted to try and get as close to Esther as possible – though I’m nothing like her,” she recalls. “She’s really tall, very slim, statuesque and blonde. But after watching old episodes again, I hopefully got fairly close without it being a caricature. I just wanted to bring an essence of Esther really.”

Spiro previously starred in Sex Education and Ridley Road alongside appearances in Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, but she admits to feeling most at home on stage.

“My career has always been theatre heavy. In more recent years, it’s shifted to being more TV and film and I’m delighted that has taken over, but I’ve really, really missed theatre. That is where my heart is,” she says, adding that she has not treaded the boards properly since before the first lockdown in 2020.

Happily for Spiro, who has twice won an Olivier award, it was announced this week that she will be returning for the next Royal Shakespeare Company season under its new artistic directors Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey.

The Most Precious of Goods is at the Marylebone Theatre from 22 January to 3 February. mostpreciousgoods.com

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