THEATRE / Displaced persons: Paul Taylor reviews Diane Samuels' new play Kindertransport at the Cockpit Theatre

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A KEY PART of good parenthood, it's often said, is simply 'being there' for your children. Kindertransport, Diane Samuels' wrenching new play, explores the long-term consequences of a situation where that principle effectively ceased to apply. Between December 1938 and the outbreak of war, the Kindertransport movement organised the evacuation to England from Germany of nearly 10,000 Jewish children, many of whom would never see their parents again. They arrived with the pitifully few possessions the Nazis allowed out, but the problem of belongings was quickly succeeded by the dilemmas of belonging.

Shifting back and forth between that period and the Eighties, Samuels' award-winning drama shows how this displacement took its toll on succeeding generations. The setting is a box-filled attic where, at the start, we see a German mother preparing her nine-year-old daughter for the escape she will make alone. On the other side of the room, we witness a situation from the Eighties that's like a distorted echo of this. A neurotically well-groomed mother is fishing out items her young adult daughter might find useful now that she's finally flying the coop. Neither mother wants the child to go but, whereas the German woman is capable of agonised self-sacrifice, the English lady is clearly putting veiled pressure on her girl to stay. Then it becomes apparent that this chilly creature with the faultless English facade was once the impulsive little German girl in plaits with whom she unwittingly shares the stage.

The play - which is brought to piercing life by Abigail Morris's excellent cast - explains how and why that transformation came about. Scenes in which a furiously resentful Faith (Suzan Sylvester) lambasts her mother for racial denial and emotional distortion are intercut with episodes which chart the little German refugee's growing dependence on her down to earth and loving adoptive mother (splendid Doreen Andrew). Sarah Shanson, who is only 13, gives an amazing performance, getting right inside the character's complicated psychology as she shifts by stages from the disorientated infant still hopeful of a family reunion to the determinedly English 16- year-old who has willed herself to be unaffected by death camp footage. When her mother does arrive, the play helps you understand why, in the girl's eyes, she has assumed the aspect of the Ratcatcher, the fairytale figure who haunts the action, anxious to lead children to their doom. It's as though the mother has come back from the dead to punish her for surviving alone.

The exclusive concentration on mothers and daughters does leave whole areas blank - it would be interesting to know what sort of marriage the self-reinvented heroine had had. But this is a minor cavil: the intricate geometry of the scenes here is as impressive as the directness of its emotional impact.

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