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Kindertransport

by on 25 April 2018

Compelling Drama at Its Best

Kindertransport

by Diane Samuels

Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Selladoor Productions at Richmond Theatre until 28th April

Review by Celia Bard

“I will take the heart of your happiness away,” is a line spoken by the Ratcatcher that sends a cold shiver down your spine. You are left wondering what Eva and the Ratcatcher have in common, for he is never far away from her whether in her dreams, in the people she encounters during her travels, in the attic, in the book she reads. He embodies the stuff of nightmares, always there, ready to pounce.

The back story of Kindertransport highlights both the worst of human behaviour and the best. In March 1938 after many nights of nightmarish violence against the Jews in both German and Austria, the British Parliament, gving sway to strong pressure from a coalition of Jewish, Quaker and other groups, agreed to admit a limited number of refugee children aged between five and seventeen to resettle in Britain, hence Kinder (children’s) Transport. Some ten thousand Jewish children from various countries were placed in British homes, an act that undoubtedly saved them from the death camps. The price to pay: separation from country; family, home, friends; culture, customs, faith, and language. One such child is Eva whose parents must make the heart-wrenching decision either to keep their beloved daughter with them in Germany or to let her become one of the Kindertransport children. They make their decision, but it is one that the grown-up Evelyn cannot forgive.

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The setting of the play is significant, an attic, a wonderful place for the storage of items you no longer use but cannot bear to throw away. You may have forgotten them, but they still hold power, and continue to exert influence on behaviour, emotions, mood. In Kindertransport the attic acts as a conceit for all that Eva has suppressed about her troubled childhood. Most of the action takes place within the attic, though that attic, by the simple flipping over of sections of the floor to create a platform or seating, can become a railway station, a railway carriage.

This production is beautifully staged. Time periods seamlessly interweave, achieved by the clever cross cutting of scenes where characters appear on the stage at the same time and are juxtaposed to highlight different time sequences, enabling the play to move backwards and forwards between three periods: pre-war, in which Helga, Eva’s mother, tries to prepare her daughter for the separation; during the war where we see Eva settled in England with Lil Miller; post war and to a grown-up Eva, now called Evelyn, who now has a daughter of her own, Faith.

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Lil, the foster mother, beautifully played by Jenny Lee, stays constant, never ageing whatever the time period. Lil has insight into Eva/Evelyn’s predicament as evidenced in the scene when Eva throws herself out of train carriage, so desperate is she not to have to endure another forced parting. But ultimately Lil is unable to help Evelyn, for the problem is as much about language and culture as it is emotional stability. However, Lil is the anchor, sympathetically realised by Jenny Lee throughout the action.

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And the Ratcatcher? The Pied-Piper of Hamlyn? Always present in troublesome time, appearing in different guises. He will give you sweeties but beware for he signifies danger. He is there in all three-time periods: in the haunting, background music that draws you in, in the book, in the mind. A particularly interesting action of the Ratcatcher is the pulling down of curtains and wrapping them around himself. As he grows bigger and bigger Evelyn gives away more of her secrets. Matthew Brown, who plays this role, is most effective in all the different characters he plays, charming, frightening, a monster. This actor has an impressive stage presence and is convincing throughout.

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Suzan Sylvester presents a neurotic, withdrawn Evelyn. The emotional and feisty version of her younger self completely disappears. I liked this characterisation but for me Suzan’s performance lacks conviction and at times her action and movement are clumsy. She has many quiet moments, but the audience still needs to hear what she is saying. Her best moments are in the penultimate scene when she suddenly breaks down, and her story comes flooding out. Here she is strong and forceful and presents a real force.

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Likewise, I found Claire Thill’s performance as Helga a little lacklustre except in the first scene where she exerts pressure on Eva to sew the button on her coat. In her scene with the eighteen-year-old Eva she appears as an old woman. She may be broken in body, but certainly not in soul and this was not reflected in Claire’s acting. Here her interchanges with Eva lacked conviction.

Hannah Bristow as Faith, Evelyn’s daughter, gives a very strong performance in all her scenes. Her emotions swing from anger and frustration caused by her mother’s inability to communicate. This character is well named Faith, representing as she does the continuance of her family’s life-blood. Helga makes the decision to send Eva away, to keep her safe. The story book, The Ratcatcher, and a Jewish religious book end up in Faith’s possession, representing both a warning of shadowy ills, and faith in religious beliefs and customs. Hannah totally succeeds in drawing the audience into all that she is experiencing, acting with conviction and intelligence throughout.

Leila Schaus is just brilliant as Eva; the part could have been written specially for this actor: she totally owns it. Her transformation from the young, feisty, argumentative German nine-year-old girl to the self-contained ‘English’ seventeen-year-old is realistic and tragic. She stays safe, but she has lost the heart of her happiness, stolen when wrenched away from parents, language, and country.

In summing up this production this is one not to be missed. Psychologically strong, imaginatively directed, and overall beautifully and truthfully acted: it is compelling drama at its best.

Celia Bard, April 2018

Photography by Mark Sepple

From → Drama, Reviews

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Gosh, this was uploaded very quickly. Love the photographs. Warmest Anne

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