Seventy five years on from the first evacuation of Jewish children to Britain from Nazi Europe, a touring production is dramatically telling the story in a way that is both deeply harrowing and gloriously uplifting.
The 1993 play Kindertransport by Diane Samuels isn’t so much about the horrors of the Holocaust but more the impact on the rescued children who were separated from their parents and taken to a different culture where they faced kindness, indifference, occasional exploitation, and the selflessness of ordinary people.
It’s also very much a play about the relationship between mothers and daughters: the play looks at the parallel lives of German mother Helga who is preparing her precocious daughter Eva to be transported from Hamburg to England on the eve of World War Two, and the lives of English mother and daughter Evelyn and Faith in the present day – a time difference gradually explained powerfully.
The stories are told side by side, yet the nature of the story-telling and the high quality production values mean that this is never a confusing device, rather it adds considerably to the sense of tension, with one tale often mirroring or highlighting aspects of the other until all is made clear.
It’s a play about departures and arrivals, generations never quite understanding one another, and the heart-wrenching moment when parents have to let their children go and survive by themselves in the world. There is also a strong element of the need to remember, using history to shape the present and the future.
In this production, skilfully handled on a relatively simple set by director Andrew Hall, it is also a play of striking and memorable performances: Gabrielle Dempsey as young Eva, especially good showing the shift in cultures and accents; Janet Dibley as Evelyn, struggling with long-suppressed memories; Paula Wilcox as Mrs Miller, the big-hearted northern mum who acts as foster mother to Eva and switching from her young to old self effortlessly; Rosie Holden as Faith, coming to terms with revelations about her family; Emma Deegan as Helga, conveying the pain of sending her daughter into a great unknown; and Paul Lancaster, playing all the male roles from Rat Catcher to postman with impressive versatility, and more than a little sense of menace.
It isn’t an easy play to watch and there are likely to be mixed emotions by the final curtain, but the production is one of power and poignancy, trauma and tenderness, with themes and performances likely to remain with you long after you have left the theatre. As the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) taught, “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”