Kindertransport – Richmond Theatre Review
The 1993 play about the British refugee scheme that saved thousands during the Second World War, Kindertransport, has returned for a timely new revival at Richmond Theatre.
In 1938, tensions in Germany against Jewish natives provoked international forces to step in and allow safe passage of 10,000 German Jewish children to the United Kingdom: a scheme known as ‘Kindertransport’ (literally ‘transportation of children’). Thousands of lives were saved through the scheme, though many of the evacuated children lost their homes and families back in Germany and Austria. Many never returned home, becoming naturalised as British citizens. Kindertransport the play follows one such refugee, nine-year-old German Jew Eva (Leila Strauss), as her mother sends her to England in 1938 with the promise she will return for her one day. In the future, Faith (Hannah Bristow), the grown-up daughter of Eva (now called Evelyn and portrayed by Suzan Sylvester), is preparing to leave home when she discovers something that makes her question her whole identity.
Kindertransport is a dense play packed with themes of guilt, identity and parenthood. The backdrop of the horrors of World War II is well-suited to unpack these themes, exploring the psychological aftermath of one of history’s greatest human tragedies. The script is powerful, painfully relatable despite the many years that have passed since the war. It is also easy to understand – even going so far as to use simple German in German language-scenes that anyone with a minor understanding of the language is able to follow. There is a lot going on, with a lot of thought-provoking moments, which makes it easy to understand why this play is a popular choice amongst GCSE curriculums.
The subject matter dominates this production, which chooses minimalism in its backdrop and sound and lighting design. The whole play, including scenes from the past and the present, takes place in one room – an attic filled with memories. Like Evelyn’s emotions, these memories are stored tightly away until Faith brings them to light.
One example of the subtlety of this production is a monstrous mythical figure called the Ratcatcher, who the young Eva worries will steal her away. On stage, the Ratcatcher is a huge hunchbacked muddle of coats, with terrible long-fingered hands, stalking the sides of the stage whenever Eva becomes frightened. It captures the childhood fear of a ‘monster under the bed’ very well, leading to a painful revelation later on as Eva explains what years of separation have equated the monster too.
Suzan Sylvester comes full circle in the role of the haunted Evelyn, after originating the role of the character’s younger self, Eva, in the original 1993 production. Her performance is a layered portrayal of a woman struggling to keep the past in its place. Leila Strauss is the young Eva, desperate for her parents to return to her. Strauss’s Eva is very needy, which is at times touching and at times grating, but does capture the desperation of the child trapped in a situation beyond her control. Jenny Lee makes the biggest impression though as Lil Miller, the warm and welcoming (yet authoritative) foster mother who serves as a source of comfort and a home for Eva.
While Kindertransport is a beautiful play, this particular production does not always work as well as it should. It is easy for one’s mind to wander in the monotony of some overlong scenes. It might have been served well by picking up the pace and skipping the interval altogether. That said, it is wonderful to see a cast and creatives list dominated by female names, and this play, which focuses on the female experience, is all the better for it.
Kindertransport is running at Richmond Theatre until April 28th before continuing its National Tour.