Review: The moving story of Kindertransport

By Alan Wooding

Tuesday, 5th November 2013, 8:46 am
Kindertransport
Kindertransport

It’s 1938 and Adolf Hitler’s henchmen are increasing their campaign of hate and violence against the European Jews.

Europe is on the brink of war and anti-Semitism is rapidly spreading from the south which leaves many Jewish parents with little choice other than to take the heartbreaking decision to ship their children to the relative safety of England.

Kindertransport explores the relationship between mother and daughter both in those terrifying days and in more modern times as writer Diane Samuels’ play takes us on a thought provoking roller-coaster of a journey.

The horrors of the Holocaust are becoming a reality when nine-year-old Eva (Gabrielle Dempsey) is separated from her parents and sent aboard. And while she grows up with foster parents in Manchester, her name is changed to Evelyn and she gains British citizenship.

Unable to speak the language, Eva is a frightened little girl but is constantly told that her real parents will be coming to join her ‘in a month or two’.

After being put on a children’s transport train by her mother Helga (Emma Deegan) in her home city of Hamburg, Eva arrives in Britain just weeks before the outbreak of war but doesn’t realise that her mother had tried to prepare her for what lay ahead.

Back to the present and now with her own daughter, Faith (Rosie Holden) about to go away to study at college, Eva / Evelyn (Janet Dibley) is forced to face her own past and to relive the feelings which for years have been buried deep inside her.

Played out on a simple set in a roof-beamed attic scattered with old boxes – which are moved around to represent a hotel bedroom, a train, etc – this emotional and powerful story constantly switches from past to present with Paula Wilcox proving to be a visual link between the two as Eva/Evelyn’s foster mother Lil Miller.

Manchester-born Paula, now 63, is still perhaps best known for her role in the 1970s television sit-com ‘Man About The House’ and she gives a wonderful polished performance at Lil.

Meanwhile Janet Dibley – whose career was launched in another 1980s sit-com on ITV, ‘The Two of Us’ opposite Nicholas Lyndhurst – is brilliant in her portrayal of Faith’s mother Evelyn.

With Faith discovering a box of old papers, letters and a mouthorgan in the Miller house’s attic, she puts two and two together and she realises that her mother is in fact Jewish and that she was a wartime refugee.

There are several twists and turns before Helga finally turns up in England eight years on when Eva – who has switched from having a strong German accent to a Mancunian one! – has reached the age of 17.

With Helga having somehow escaped the Auschwitz gas chamber in which her husband perished, her now naturalised daughter wants nothing to do with her and Eva refuses to board a ship and go to New York to start a new life, saying that she has a family in Manchester.

Throughout the play, Paul Lancaster gives a quirky performance as ‘Ratcatcher’, the title of a German fairytale children’s book which clearly instills fear into nine-year-old Eva.

Always lurking in the shadows and making the odd nightmarish appearance, Lancaster also takes on the minor role of a German soldier, a postman and a station porter while Ratcatcher’s appearance is a constant reminder of Eva’s past… not that she really needs a reminder!

Kindertransport is a moving story from start to finish. The reality of the period is brought to the stage thanks to a very talented cast and a remarkable piece of writing. It highlights the plight of the European Jews and their families back in the late 1930s and 1940s yet it doesn’t dwell on the Holocaust.

However it does make you realise just how sinister the period was under the Nazi regime… Monday’s audience reflecting that as they filed quietly out of the auditorium, most of them probably feeling as emotional as I did.

Kindertransport plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (November 9) with a matinee performance tomorrow (Wednesday) and again on Saturday. Tickets are available from the box office by calling 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).