An international cast and an international creative team deliver a play with an international and inter-generational setting. To put it another way, this isn’t the sort of production that happens every day. The play’s title is synonymous with the rescue effort of thousands of Jewish children from Nazi-controlled territories prior to the outbreak of World War Two: the Third Reich’s policy leaned towards expulsion before implementation of their so-called ‘Final Solution’. But Kindertransport is a very personal play, and not, strictly speaking, a historical one: the narrative is factual at a macro level, but the characters do not (or at least, do not intend to) resemble anyone in particular in real life.
First performed in 1993, this 2018 production marks its silver anniversary. It is set in what I took to be 1980s suburban London. Evelyn (Suzan Sylvester) is going through some items in the attic, as is her daughter Faith (Hannah Bristow), as the latter is moving out. This circumstance is a narrative device that leads to the show’s critical incident, in which a number of books, official documents and personal correspondence is discovered by Faith.
Some scenes from the war period are dramatised, though the play as a whole is set in a loft – what I call ‘the static attic’, on account of there being no stage revolve to switch between Hamburg and London. The production possesses a lot of nuance and subtlety, and for pedants like me, a glorious moment in which Eva Schlesinger (Leila Schaus), one of the ‘kinders’ transported to England, tells her new guardian, Lil Miller (Jenny Lee), “I have hunger”. Grammatically, that’s always been a better form of expression for me than, “I am hungry” – one cannot ‘be’ hungry, but one can possess hunger.
Anyway, in Thatcher’s Britain, the reticence on Lil not to talk about what went on back then, now that Faith, her granddaughter, is asking questions, is understandable. There are, after all, more pleasant things to occupy people’s thinking. But Faith’s increasing frustration at not getting answers to her questions is also palpable. The play also explores in some depth the different emotions experienced by the child who would rather stay when they are being urged to go, and the parents who would rather have the child sent away for the child’s safety. It’s harrowing stuff, especially when the exchange of affection becomes a sort of requirement to fill an emptiness so obvious to all parties concerned they openly refer to it to one another as “the abyss”.
The theatrical device of the Ratcatcher (Matthew Brown) and his various other guises, such as a Nazi official on the train rifling through the contents of Eva’s suitcase, portray men of a certain kind to be feared. This is not a sweeping generalisation about men, or indeed about women, but simply to say that the Ratcatcher is representative of a regime that is the reason why the on-stage female characters suffer. Completing the set of characters is Catherine Janke’s Helga, Eva’s birth mother, who makes the painful decision to send Eva away to England.
The lighting (Nic Farman) creates an appropriate atmosphere, as does the sound (Adrienne Quartly). Steadily paced, the play offers no tidy ending, and while there is a positive outcome of sorts, it becomes clear that not all of the psychological damage sustained in the past has been repaired, and may never be. How tragic it is that an attempt on the part of a parent to hide their horrifying experiences from their child ended up hurting the child all the more once the truth was uncovered.
The universal strength of the acting makes the show particularly engaging and, all things considered, this is a deeply poignant and an emotionally intelligent production, with much food for thought.