In 1938 as the Nazis started to escalate their persecution of German Jews, a delegation of British, Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to admit a number of unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany to come to this country and be looked after by English families all over the UK. Within a short time, 10,000 children had arrived as part of what became known as the Kindertransport and were billeted with their new families. Most of them suffered trauma as they left the homes they knew, their friends and most importantly, their parents the majority of whom they would never see again.
Every child who came over as part of the Kindertransport initiative had a story to tell and in Diane Samuel’s 1993 play Kindertransport we’re told the story of Eva Schlesinger who’s taken in by Lil and moved to Manchester unable to speak the language of her new country of residence and confused by why she was sent away by the parents who loved her. The play, although fictitious, is based on some real Kindertransport children and their stories have been woven together to produce Kindertransport at the South London Theatre and is the debut production from Everything’s Rosie.
On a simple set – just some old pre-war suitcases on one side of the stage and some modern packing cases on the other, we meet Eva and her mother as they discuss Eva’s departure to England whilst on the other side of the stage, we’re in modern times as we meet Faith who’s about to leave home, her mother Evelyn and grandmother Lil and for a while the two stories are interwoven as time moves from one era to another. We get to learn a lot about the five women and what they’re going through before the action moves to 1938 as Lil meets Eva and takes her to Manchester to start her new life. Everything seems to be settling down until back in contemporary Manchester, Evelyn has a deep and dark secret that she’s been hiding from Faith but knows she has to finally tell all.
Kindertransport was first produced at The Cockpit Theatre in April 1993 before having a run in New York and had a season in the West End in 1996 as well as being adapted by Samuels as a radio play for BBC Radio 4 so it’s had a long and distinguished life. However, this production just doesn’t do the play justice as it fails to give it the clarity it needs to make sense of a somewhat convoluted plot. The modern story has to be set around 1975 to make any sense of the ages of the characters but the clothing of Evelyn, Lil and Faith is far too modern and there’s even a packing case with a website address making it contemporary and simply makes no sense. There are also some odd choices of accents which confuses the issue even more as does a strange blackout in the middle of act one and then the act ends abruptly confusing the audience who had no idea if it was time to clap or not!
However, the one shining light in this muddled production of a somewhat confusing play, is the wonderful performance of Sophie Ablett who amidst the confusion of actors either overacting or in one or two cases underacting, is a beacon of brilliance. She’s totally believable as 9-year-old Eva and ages before our eyes. Even when she’s not in a scene but remains on stage in the background she continues to act with subtle gestures and movements. It’s a nuanced performance that lights up the stage and draws us into the complex character as her life is turned upside down.
With most of the original Kindertransport children either dead or in their nineties or older, it’s vital that the story of the Kindertransport and their families who died in the Holocaust continues to be told and whilst this, unfortunately, isn’t a great production, hats off to the team at Everything’s Rosie for putting it on and telling the story of the Kindertransport.
Review by Alan Fitter
In 1939, a young German Jewish girl, Eva, is travelling to England on the Kindertransport to be safe from Nazi oppression. In 1980s London Faith is preparing to leave home when she finds something in the attic which reveals a secret that her mother has kept hidden for forty years. As Evelyn tries to hide the painful truth of her war, der Rattenfänger looms in the background threatening to strike at any moment.
Everything’s Rosie Theatre present: Kindertransport
DATE: 24 – 27 AUG 2022