KindertransportKindertransport by Diane Samuels at the Richmond Theatre

7th February, 2014

‘How  could I swim ashore with so much heaviness on me? I was drowning in leagues and leagues of salty water…. .I had to let go to float.’ Eva

Diane Samuels’s splendid play was revived last year for the 75th anniversary year to commemorate the dramatic decision of desperate Jewish parents to get their children out of the growing Nazi territory , mainly to Britain; the vast majority never to see their parents again.  The exodus became known as  Kindertransport which literally translates as ‘the transportation of children’. Nine year old, Eva Schlesinger(Gabrielle Dempsey) becomes the fictional composite of those kinder- survivors the playwright interviewed.

To add to the narrative, light falls on a pair of shoes is to prepare us for the themes of isolation and dislocation and displacement.

Samuels cleverly used cross-cutting to represent two time periods: 1939 and 1980s. In 1930s Germany, Helga (Emma Deegan) forces her daughter, Eva onto a train, sending her out of danger and into the arms of strangers. There are little hints of how the Nazis, complicit in the transfer, made the kinder -journey humiliating and terrifying. The bed which at first serves as domestic security and happiness also acts as a carriage of separation with the inevitable political association with the cattle freight trains which carried Jews to death camps. Though much is left to the imagination of the audience, like Eva, we are distanced from the brutality of the Holocaust. Yet Eva’s child perspective becomes the Grimm fairy tale which haunts the play.

In contrast, in 1980s Britain, Evelyn (Janet Dibley) prepares to say farewell to her grown-up daughter, Faith( Rosie Holden) as she cuts the ties of childhood to leave the family home. Faith’s accidental discovery of letters and artefacts in the attic including a ‘Der Rattenfänger’storybook serves to link the past and the present, and gradually exposes her mother’s suppressed family history.

Paula Wilcox, as Mrs Miller, is a convincing, feisty Mancunian grandmother. She, too provides a key to Faith’s past but at the same time stability for both foster child and grandchild.

The play becomes increasingly moving in the second half when the focus shifts to Evelyn, torn between her past identity and the new one she has forged for herself, between remembering and forgetting.   At one stage, Evelyn doesn’t even recognise the mouth organ she brought from Germany, betraying her total separation from her background. Many Kindertransport refugees felt confused about their own identity, especially those who had been adopted by non-Jewish families, or who had found it difficult to adjust to the British way of life. The reunion  between Evelyn and her birth mother highlights that for some the issue of identity has never been fully resolved. Despite Evelyn’s chilling lines ‘I’ve been ‘cleansed’, she is incapable of deleting her memory, notwithstanding British naturalisation, name change, change of birthdate, and finally her baptism. More disturbing still, Eva who has redefined herself as Evelyn is unable to reignite that seemingly innate bond between mother and daughter.

Throughout the play, Paul Lancaster is an unsettling element of cruelty in all of his guises of authority, whether as an an SS guard, an English billeting official or an English postman. Unnerving of all, is when the latter unexpectedly shifts from his slapstick goosestep to demanding Eva’s participation in his Nazi charade. Amidst Eva’s rites of passage, I love the way Gabrielle Dempsey plays with the  transition of spoken German to Mancurian, then to a perceived stiff British accent. It serves as a reminder as how language can define and alienate us.

Out of Eva’s haunted memories is born, a partly psychological, partly mythological invention of a scary Ratcatcher  figure who lures children away like The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Here, Lancaster’s mercurial portrayal of the role, draws her away from her Jewish culture, yet conversely represents a mirror to her Jewishness. Through the Ratcatcher’s sheer physicality, Andrew Hall’s considered production uncovers the destructive power of memories. The menacing  image forces reflection on  Eva’s struggle and denial  – a past that refuses to disappear. Altogether, it adds up to one huge destabilising, alienating and ongoing trauma.

And thus it goes further than Diane Samuels states: ‘At its heart, the play is about that universal and timeless aspect of human experience: the separation of a child from its parent. Every person on earth, whatever their age, can relate to that.’

Kindertransport is deceptively simple for its cultural and linguistic dislocation are painfully combined with the loss of one family, the formation of another, and its attendant feelings of betrayal and guilt.