Shared Experience presents this affecting play about the lasting effects of displacement on the thousands of children who left Germany just before World War II, alone and frightened. It has already toured extensively around the UK, and now settles for a while at Hampstead. Writer Diane Samuels layers times and places with parallel stories of mothers and children. Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience…
When the Nazis rose to power in 1930s Germany, there was a huge increase in anti-Semitic activity. Jewish businesses were boycotted, a series of laws were introduced which increasingly excluded Jews from public life. When a German diplomat was killed by a Jew in November 1938, it was the catalyst for a terrible escalation in Nazi violence. This spate of brutality prompted the evacuation of Jewish children from Germany. The Movement for the Care of Children from Germany was formed, and they rescued almost 10,000 unaccompanied children before the war broke out nine months later.
This is where Kindertransport begins. In an attic, a nine year old girl is reading her favourite storybook – the Ratcatcher – as her mother tries to show her how to sew her buttons onto a coat. Eva (Matti Houghton) does not understand why she has to do it, as her mother has always done it for her, nor can she understand why the coat is so big. “It’s to last next winter too”, her mother, Helga (Pandora Colin) tells her. As Eva reads about the Ratcatcher leading the children of Hamelin away forever, her mother prepares to send her child off alone.
In the same attic, a parallel story begins, that of bolshie young woman Faith (Lily Bevan), who is preparing to move out of the family home, and her fussy mother Evelyn (Marion Bailey), who is trying to load her up with china, crystal and tablecloths for her new flat. When Faith decides she doesn’t want to leave home at all, and everything has to be put back in the attic again, she begins to explore among the suitcases and boxes.
Back in 1938, Eva has been put on a train all by herself, going all the way to England. Frightened by thoughts of the Ratcatcher (Alexi Kaye Campbell) – who eerily appears onstage as if from nowhere – she ends up in London, alone, waiting for someone to look after her. In the present, Faith finds some documents and letters which seem to hold the key to a family secret, reluctantly confirmed by her grandmother, Lil (Eileen O’Brien). At the pre-war train station, Eva’s kindly host mother, Mrs Miller (also played by O’Brien) appears and takes her off to Manchester. Soon Eva is becoming more at home in England, while Faith, Evelyn and Lil are having to come to terms with events from long ago, and blame and hatred are spilling out from stiff upper lips.
The ingenious, dark attic set by Jonathon Fensom is put to good use – ladders and suitcases are clambered over, a wardrobe becomes the entrance to a train, another room, another time. Atmospheric lighting, designed by Natasha Chivers, takes us from one time and place to another in a moment.
The breaking down of communication is a central theme in Kindertransport. All the characters have their own difficulties in saying how they feel and what they want, and the tragedy of a mother denied her own child, and a childhood crushed by the abandonment of her parents lies heavily over the play. The severing of emotional bonds causes deep scars and reflects down generations, leaving a sense of unspoken hurt and desperation that should never have been known. The Ratcatcher leaves a dark shadow over the stage, when everyone has departed. Children that were taken away long ago still have a story to tell, and that is what is so important about this play.
Kindertransport plays at the Hampstead until 26 May.