Writer: Diane Samuels
Director: Fiona Buffini
Reviewer: Dave Smith
The Kindertransport was an organised effort to rescue Jewish children from the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Germany in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II. The reception these refugees received was not always as welcoming as we might hope it would have been given the circumstances; the Daily Mail famously ran a story headlined “German Jews Pouring Into This Country”, warning of ‘aliens’ getting into the country through the ‘back door’. Sound familiar?
To mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, Nottingham Playhouse has revived Diane Samuels’ brilliant play of the same name, and it shouldn’t take a genius to work out just how pertinent it might be to what’s going on in today’s Britain. But there’s a lot more to Kindertransport than a story of refugees lost in a new country.
Packed off by her parents as life gets increasingly dangerous for Jews in pre-war Germany, Eva Schlesinger (Jenny Walser) finds herself in Manchester, living with Lil (Denise Black) and her family. At first, she finds herself at odds with her new guardian, but over the years she becomes more and more English and more and more part of Lil’s family until one day her mother Helga (Rebecca D’Souza) turns up wanting to take her to join family in New York. Meanwhile, in an attic in the 1980s, a grown-up and fully anglicised Eva, now called Evelyn (Cate Hamer), is confronted by her daughter Faith (Elena Breschi), who knows nothing about her mother’s past.
In her programme notes, Director Fiona Buffini explains that it was partly the rarity of such an important story being told from a woman’s perspective that drew her to it. Even rarer is how she’s managed to carry this concept right the way through the production: writer, director, designer, lighting designer and five of the cast of six are women (the one male member of the cast – Patrick Osbourne – is at different times a Nazi, a casually racist postman and the evil Ratcatcher, focus of many of Eva’s nightmares).
The result is a powerful and involving piece of theatre, the first half of which in particular represents the best hour this reviewer has seen on the Playhouse stage for a long time. That it loses some of that impetus after the interval, while disappointing to an extent given what’s gone before, does not take away the overwhelmingly positive feeling of the show as a whole.
Buffini handles young Eva’s story with real heart and unexpected humour but is less assured with the Evelyn/Faith section, where everything gets a bit more shouty. Madeleine Girling’s set – for the most part, an attic littered with the abandoned and hidden memories of Eva’s childhood – allows the cast to move seamlessly between locations and time zones and works on every occasion. Alexandra Stafford’s lighting design is quite simply brilliant, adding layers of atmosphere to Eva’s physical, emotional and psychological journeys.
Denise Black, as Eva’s surrogate mother in both time frames, is also superb, giving us a properly rounded portrayal of a no-nonsense working-class Northern woman dealing with an at times unwinnable situation with courage, humour and compassion.
In the same way that their part of the story lacks the emotional heart of that of the younger Eva, so Cate Hamer and Elena Breschi as Evelyn and her daughter fail to quite hit the heights being achieved around them. Rebecca D’Souza, on the other hand, is uncomfortably believable as a concentration camp survivor.
Central to the whole thing working, however, is the character of Eva, and it’s Jenny Walser’s stunning portrayal that makes sure that happens. That the first half works so well is in no small way down to her astonishingly assured performance, worth seeing this excellent production on its own.
Runs Until 20 October 2018 | Image: Catherine Ashmore