The Valley of Astonishment at the Young Vic is a play about synaesthesia. Sounds dry but actually it is warm, engaging, smart and funny.
Synaesthesia is where the brain blends the senses so memory becomes linked with colour and form. It's a condition that means many of those with it exhibit astonishing skills such as profound abilities to memorise names and telephone numbers, perform complex mental arithmetic at the snap of a finger, as well as demonstrating talents for more creative activities such as visual art and music.
The heart and soul of this show is the story of Sammy Costas (played beautifully by Kathryn Hunter), a woman working at a newspaper whose ability to memorise numerical and word sequences results in her being sent for tests at a neurological institute.
Through Sammy and the characters she meets along the way, we get to witness the joys and trials of this extraordinary condition. Whether it's Jared McNeill explaining the wonder of capturing the sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in paintings, or Marcello Magni bringing a comedic touch with his depictions of a one-armed card shark or a man who has overcome much of his paralysis through retraining of his mind, you are left in awe at the wonders of the human brain.
I didn't imagine that this show could be as entertaining as it was. The directors Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne have got the balance of science with entertainment just about right. Just when you thought the production was teetering on the edge of becoming too dry, there'd be a moment of humour, or the fourth wall would come down and we were reengaged again.
Actually the level of audience interaction in this show was a shrewd move. When you're trying to bring science to life it works so much better when the audience is more a participant than an observer. It was also the source of many of the lighter moments in the show and made this a real experience that'll get you thinking about what you've seen long after you've left the theatre.
Though this show is on the main stage at the Young Vic, it is, in truth, quite a small production. The cast involves just three actors - all of whom were immensely talented and engaging - and who play a range of characters with ease.
The support of two musicians lends some depth to the production but the set is sparse, comprising a couple of wooden chairs and a table. If you're looking for big production numbers, you won't find them here. Instead this bare set is used as juxtaposition to the vivid worlds conjured up in the minds of those characters with this extraordinary condition.
With its sparse set design, lack of big names and science-y subject matter, this play won't appeal to everyone, which is a shame as the audience were enraptured the night I went, giving the cast and musicians big cheers at their curtain call.
Young Vic Theatre, London to July 12, 2014
Image credits © Simon Annand
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