Kindertransport (play review) ★★★★☆



Kindertransport is the story of nine-year-old Eva Schlesinger, a German Jew fleeing persecution in Germany to safety in England, set in the late 1930s. As one of the thousands of Jewish children trying to start a different life on foreign shores, Kindertransport has startling relevance yet again in the light of the current Syrian refugee crisis. Kindertransport, which translates as “children’s transport”, relates to the operation which brought ten thousand refugee Jewish children into the UK between 1938 and 1940. The movement was prompted by the horrific violence that occurred on the night of November 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht. The Nazis burnt down synagogues, wrecked Jewish homes, schools, and businesses and killed almost 100 Jewish people.

After arriving in Great Britain, Eva is sent to live in Nottingham with Lil, a stoical middle-aged woman. This is a temporary arrangement while Eva’s parents try to find work in England so that they can join her there. Eva struggles with her English and Lil initially shows herself to be an unsuitable guardian to an impressionable child by letting Eva smoke a cigarette on her first day in England. Despite her mother promising she would be in England within 3 months, time passes and no news comes, and Eva becomes dreadfully unhappy. She starts knocking on doors in her local area, asking if anyone has a job for her parents, an act of desperation which angers Lil. For a while, Lil is no replacement for her mother, Helga. However, once at peace with one another, the Lil and Eva develop a strong bond, and as Eva grows and the prospect of her parents arriving in England becomes more and more unlikely, she starts to lose touch with her Jewish identity. She starts eating ham, stops observing Jewish festivals and eventually decides to become naturalised as Evelyn. Not only that, she is officially adopted by Lil, the final act of separation. Eventually, Helga arrives, when Evelyn is in her late teens. Helga is distressed by the change in her daughter, her distant nature and her refusal to travel to New York to live with her remaining family. She then informs Evelyn that her father has died in a concentration camp, while Helga managed to survive and escape. The pair argues and Helga disappears, forever.

This storyline is juxtaposed with scenes of Evelyn 40 years on, and her daughter, Faith, who is uncovering her mother’s secret past in the “present”. Evelyn’s denial of her roots has continued steadfastly into adulthood, as she has done everything within her power to conceal her identity from her daughter, with the encouragement of Lil. She struggles to come to terms with her origins, associating it with traumatic memories. Faith and Evelyn argue, but manage to become at peace with each other on the subject.

The play occurs in an attic. On the left of the stage, all the action from Evelyn’s childhood occurs, with the action from the present on the right. There is a tangible divide between the eras, joined by a doorway through which all characters enter. As the play continues, the barrier becomes increasingly blurred as Lil, Evelyn’s adoptive mother, moves with ease between the decades. By the end of the play, Evelyn is interacting with her past selves and all guise of separate times dissolves.The scenery stays static and the same throughout the play – initially this felt restrictive, however, the attic becomes a potent representation of Evelyn’s psyche. The child in Evelyn is shown by the frequent appearances of the Ratcatcher, a character from a sinister fairytale who lured children away from Hamlin, never to be found again.She has a genuine fear of him even into adulthood. In the attic, everything is boxed up, labeled and divided, in correlation to Evelyn’s obsessive personality. Once Faith has opened the boxes which contain pieces of Evelyn’s past, chaos starts to descend. By the end, characters from all eras are roaming around the stage, imaginary conversations and arguments are taking place, and the sinister Ratcatcher starts to take over. Evelyn’s thoughts and fears become confused, and she suggests that Helga, rather than being a source of comfort, was the Ratcatcher all along. Through the complex workings of Evelyn’s mind, it is apparent that although this play is about the kindertransport movement, it is also a play about mothers and daughters, childhood and ultimately, fear.

Eva Balding was stunning as nine-year-old Eva, showing incredible talent and emotional depth for her age, especially as it appears to be her first serious (and leading) role.Her German accent and pronunciation were spot on, and she had excellent timing in her delivery. One performance that was particularly moving, however, was Olivia France as Helga, Eva’s mother. In the first act, she is a comforting presence, reading stories to young Eva and teaching her how to look after herself. Even once Eva has gone to England, Helga is very much still present, in her reassuring letters to Eva. However, in the second act, when Helga finally reaches England, she is a shadow of her former self. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when she came on stage. Her posture conveyed a certain hollowness, and the trauma she had gone through seemed etched on her face. The contrast between Saffron Clements’ healthy and distant teenage Evelyn and Helga, a shell of a woman, was striking and almost hard to stomach.

This was a great production by the Deben Players, thanks to a strong cast and imaginative staging. My only criticisms are that some of the present day interactions felt somewhat forced and occasionally too hysterical, Furthermore, the surreal dance sequences employed at the end of the last scene did not seem well-fitting. However, this production was thought-provoking, moving, intriguing and often funny. I look forward to seeing more productions of this ilk from The Deben Players.

4 out of 5 stars.


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