Opera House, Manchester – until 5 May 2018
Reviewed by Julie Noller
Kindertransport is a play written in 1993 by Diane Samuels; it’s a true to life story centring on how Britain agreed to take thousands of young Jewish children as refugees from Nazi Germany during 1938-1940. This is pre-war Europe where innocence has not long been regained after the horrors of the Great War and unsuspecting children knew nothing of the fates that awaited them. It takes place in a series of flashbacks from a 1960’s Manchester attic.
Kindertransport is extremely clever in it’s set design, it makes us the audience think; just to stop and consider how lives interact. The consequences of one generations actions may just have a profound effect on the lives of future generations.
The recurring theme throughout and rather creepy if you are not aware of just what you are looking at on stage is The Ratcatcher played by Matthew Brown (he infact plays all the male characters and I wonder if that’s a coincidence) theres his strangely contorted body aided sometimes by a walking stick (another coincidence is that Helga later uses a walking stick) there’s eerie whistles alerting us to his presence. Matthew Brown also brings us many of the sound effects once again linking The Ratcatcher to everyday life; such as the steam train in motion, this helps us to understand the connections of actions to consequences. The Ratcatcher shows us that fear can be an extremely deep rooted thing, how our minds bring events, sounds and even smells together in that fear. The Ratcatcher is he human? With his presence we feel the impending doom of war looming large, the Nazis and the whole sense that nothing will ever be the same again.
When I first saw and heard Eva up on the stage I truly believed her to be a young child actor. But Leila Schaus is not a child but a very talented actor. I see and feel her angst, desperation and sadness. She is confused, why has she been sent away, why was she abandoned when war broke out. Why did her parents break their word and not come to England, of course a ten year old will believe it’s the 9th of September when really it’s the 11th if she believes her parents will come on that very day as promised. All that attachment fear lives on as Eva becomes English and changes not just her birthday but her identity to Evelyn played as an adult and Mother herself by Suzan Sylvester. She pushes her daughter away and can’t understand why Faith (Hannah Bristow) feels the need to know her heritage. Faith desperately wants to understand her Mother and this secretive hidden side to her birthright brings yet more confusion. Evelyn for her own part who has hidden Eva inside an old battered box, alongside other unspoken and unseen artefacts, is now wallowing in misery unable to cope with this feeling of abandonment. Catherine Janke as Helga is a Mother on the edge, tying to explain to her nine year old daughter Eva; it is with love she is sent away, to simply survive. Eva never did understand why she couldn’t stay home and in an outburst after the war when she finds her Mother alive, says she would’ve preferred to have died with her parents than felt the loneliness of separation. Helga she says was The Ratcatcher, with piercing eyes and constant criticism.
Our secondary Mother figure is Lil the lovely Jenny Lee who develops from bumbling adult into nurturing parent helping a lost Eva to become a steady Evelyn. I took my teenage pre GCSE exam sitting daughter and she thoroughly enjoyed the whole performance, even understanding and picking apart how each character felt. It’s a tale with an important message; one of life, of human sacrifice and sorrow but it equally shows us all there is kindness in the world and above all else survival. Evelyn’s lesson involved facing her demons, the scene where she faced herself and you feel she will acknowledge Eva is simple but powerful. We are constantly reminded how one small set can cover a lifetime of memories. Of course Eva and Evelyn do not converse for this is a tale across the years and memories, it’s a sad tale and very poignant that 80 years have passed and if generations do not share history then these stories and lessons in life will be lost forever