The expansive themes of the displacement of children by war and the inescapability of the past are examined in an intimate story of one family’s hidden secrets, which unexpectedly come to light when a long-buried box in the attic is opened.
Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport plays at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre for the next few days and is well worth a trip out to see. It’s a tight, well-structured play, cleanly directed by Andrew Hall and brought to life by some excellent performances.
When Eva is nine years old, her mother sends her away from Germany. The year is 1939, and Hitler’s Nazi party is in power. Thousands of other Jewish families are torn apart; as Eva leaves behind everything she ever knew and travels alone to England. There, she is taken in by kindly Manchester lass, Lil Miller, who becomes her surrogate mother. Terrified and emotionally scarred, haunted by the story of the Ratcatcher her mother used to read to her from a picture book, Eva comes to reinvent herself, adopting the name Evelyn and suppressing memories of her early childhood. But the past has a way of keeping hold of us, and so it proves for the haunted Evelyn, whose daughter Faith knows nothing of her Jewish origins, nor of whether or not her ancestors survived the Holocaust.
The weighty and moving story develops with simplicity, and the presence of the Ratcatcher himself, an embodiment of Eva/Evelyn’s nightmares, lends a supernatural element to her haunted psyche. Young Eva and modern day (circa the late 1980s) Evelyn play out their stories side by side, often intertwining on the stage. The inescapability of the past is hauntingly evoked by chillingly effective design (Juliet Shillingford) that sees the foundations of the house cut away to reveal layer upon layer of ownerless shoes – instantly bringing to mind familiar photographs of Belsen and Auschwitz – leaving Evelyn surrounded by the shallow-buried past she is so keen to keep hidden.
Terrific performances by a first-rate ensemble cast lend the story credibility, and the small, intimate tale of huge violent historical events unfolds movingly but without sentimentality. Gabrielle Dempsey (soon to join Game of Thrones) is brilliant at playing younger than her years as Eva, her German/Jewish accent unwavering and laudable. Janet Dibley finds light and shade as Evelyn – a morally ambiguous character – and Paula Wilcox warms the stage with her presence as Mrs Miller, finding humour and subtlety, but exuding compassion.
Diane Samuels’ script deserves enormous credit for the frank and unsentimental presentation of the story that never resorts to self-pity or victimhood. Evelyn is a hugely complex character, whom we’re never quite sure if we sympathise with or not. To find out why, you’ll have to see the play, but the story takes some bravely unexpected directions.
Kindertransport is a view of refugee status and the effects of war from a female point of view. There are very few men in the play (all male parts are played by the adaptable Paul Lancaster), and the male sex doesn’t emerge with much dignity here. It’s a criticism that can be overlooked since the voice of the playwright is one seldom heard. It’s a memorable play that presents a profoundly affecting era in history in an accessible and absorbing family drama.