Katie Marriott reviews the touring production of Diane Samuels’ classic play on its 25th anniversary
The Second World War narrative is one we are all familiar with, and yet we can still learn about the life-changing and enduring impacts of it from a myriad of perspectives. Sometimes this is done through theatre, and Kindertransport by Diane Samuels, recently performed at the Opera House, is no exception. It tells a story of war and its power to both make and break families, a sentiment that spans generations. For me, the play explores the impact of war on the meaning of family, specifically on the bonds between daughters and mothers, or mother-like figures.
A wooden structure that dominates the stage doubles as an attic room in 1980, and a symbol of a Germany overwhelmed by the fear and oppression brought on by Hitler’s dictatorship — it is a cold and empty space. It is in this setting that we are introduced to 9 year old Eva who is sent via ‘Kindertransport’ from Germany to England in 1939 to flee Hitler’s regime. She shares the space with Faith who, in 1980, is packing her things in the attic as she discusses with her Mum her fears for moving out. As their stories in the shared space are intermittently told we discover, alongside Faith, that Faith’s mother Evelyn is actually Eva.
Personally I perceived the relationships between mothers and daughters as the main theme in the play. We see Eva’s birth Mother keeping a brave face as she sends her daughter to a strange country, unsure of whether they’ll ever be re-united. We see Eva taken in and treated as a real daughter by Lil (Faith’s Grandma). We see Faith struggle with the idea that her Mum has lied to her for so many years, and her anguish at the idea that she know nothing about her Mother or her own heritage. I loved this about the play, despite this theme being sometimes hindered by a lack of pace and emotion in the dialogue. The performers did an amazing job to portray the pain of love between a mother and daughter being lost, the joy of that love being created and the strength of that love to endure when it is tested.
Strong performances and a clever, thoughtful set make up for a dialogue that is slow in places. The attic is framed by complete darkness in which a children’s story book monster, ‘the rat catcher’, often appears, symbolising the persistent fears that carried through from Eva’s childhood as a refugee to her adult life as a mother trying, and failing, to let go of her past. Movable floor boards enable actors to easily create train tracks, also creating visual signifiers of the literal and metaphorical distances created between loved ones because of war. Overall a moving and believable production, Kindertransport serves as a reminder to consider family as a unit that can be created and grow stronger through hard times, but one that is still delicate, especially in the face of war.