Theatre : Kindertransport Palace, Watford

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The Independent Culture
Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, is dedicated to "all the Jewish 'Kinder' who caught trains from Nazi-occupated Europe to England in 1938 / 39". Such dedications often have a hint of moral blackmail to them, arm-twisting you to admire the play because of the worthiness of the subject-matter. No suspicion of that here, though: this is a piece that genuinely honours the refugee children whose experience it movingly commemorates. It does so by not shirking an examination of how that experience could have unfortunate, generation-spanning, consequences.

The particular focus is on mother-daughter relationships. At the start of Abigail Morris's beautifully acted production, which manages to have both the warm detail of realism and the diagrammatic clarity of abstraction, we are presented with two such relationships from different eras, side by side, like distorted images of each other. In Hamburg 1939, a German mother (Ruth Mitchell) is preparing her nine-year-old daughter Eva (Julia Malewski) for her journey alone to England. With a heavy heart, yet gently, she insists that Eva learn skills, such as how to thread a needle, that will enable her to fend for herself until her parents can join her.

In a London suburb in the 1980s, another mother, Diana Quick's elegant, clenched Evelyn is also supposedly helping a daughter to flee the nest, but you can tell by her fussing impatience ("Will 11 glasses be enough?") that, whatever she may claim, she doesn't want the student-age Faith (Dido Miles) to leave her. It gradually becomes apparent that the little German girl and the repressed, ultra-English Evelyn are one and the same person. How and why this transformation came about and its effects on all concerned are slowly forced into the open when Faith, who had been kept wholly ignorant of her mother's origins, finds a suitcase of family papers in the attic.

"Wars break promises," declares Lil (Jean Boht), the kind hearted, down- to-earth Mancunian woman who takes Eva in and becomes her adoptive mother when her real parents fail to arrive and are assumed to have died in the death camps. Kindertransport shows how the girl copes with the trauma of this by blocking it out, recreating herself as English Evelyn, whose neurotic perfectionism betrays a persistent paranoia. It would be wrong to give away the later developments, but it may suggest something of Eva / Evelyn's deepest hurt and anxiety if I disclose that the Ratcatcher (Nigel Hastings), a symbolic Pied Piper-like figure from one of her storybooks who haunts the action in various guises (Nazi guard, Hun-hating Englishman, etc), comes to be equated in her mind with her mother, who survives Auschwitz and returns like a ghost from the past.

I have one quibble. Why does little Eva start to speak English with a perfect RP accent? Wouldn't there have been an interim period when she touchingly took on the tones of Mancunian Lil before she developed the manicured vowels of Evelyn? That aside, this makes for a thought-provoking, heart-rending evening and one that cries out for a transfer to the West End.

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