Kindertransport, Richmond Theatre, February 2014Posted on 4 February 2014
Two colleagues I knew who were on the final Kindertransport from Vienna on 1 September 1939 never spoke of it. After one of them died, his wife of fifty years went through his papers and discovered letters to friends on the same transport. She had no idea he’d written them. These things are kept silent, known to almost no one, and this play shows the shock and aftermath for one girl on a Kindertransport from Hamburg. Brilliantly played by Gabrielle Dempsey as a ten year old, and later a seventeen year old, we hear her speaking German and starting to recite that early childhood rhyme Hoppe hoppe Reiter, where the youngster jogs up and down on an adult’s lap.
At the same time we see another girl, a young woman leaving home to live elsewhere for the first time. Her mother helps her pack, but the girl changes her mind, and we move back and forth following both stories. There are connections. The young woman in Manchester, packing her things, comes across an old children’s book about the Ratcatcher, but her grandmother has never heard of such a story. She doesn’t connect it with the English title (The Pied Piper), but her mother knows very well, and a chain linking past and future is set in motion.
The German girl is terrified about the Ratcatcher, who suddenly appears when her evacuation train from Manchester starts off, and she jumps out, nearly breaking a leg. Her surrogate English mother, beautifully played by Paula Wilcox, regrets forcing her to go, and the girl grows to love her, and England. There are amusing incidents such as the postman doing a silly Nazi walk and getting her to perform a Hitler salute, but she finds the English sense of humour appealing, and it’s not clear she could ever go back to her German mother, austerely portrayed by Emma Deegan. When she is sent away, with a gold watch and trinkets cobbled into the heels of her shoes, there is no overt emotion, but the German authorities had said any emotional displays would result in the child being removed from the train.
The German girl Eva grows up to be Evelyn, strongly portrayed by Janet Dibley, and the whole cast gives convincing performances in Andrew Hall’s superb production of this immensely moving play. The single set, with a stage resting on the shoes of departed souls, serves everything, from a house in Hamburg, to trains, railway stations, and the new home in Manchester.
This 1993 play by Diane Samuels is utterly gripping. One is swept through Act I like a whirlwind, yet the alternation between Hamburg in the past and Manchester in the modern world is accomplished with huge clarity, and the surprises are emotionally harrowing.
Performances at Richmond continue until February 8 — for details click here. After Richmond it tours to Westcliff Palace Theatre from Feb 10; Eastbourne Devonshire Park from Feb 25; Guildford Yvonne Arnaud from Mar 3; Malvern Festival Theatre from Mar 11; Theatr Clwyd, Mold from Mar 17; Manchester Opera House, Mar 25.