A tragic child lost in war

Kindertransport 

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 

***** 

KINDERTRANSPORT is one of those less familiar incidents of the Second World War, a rescue mission most people have never heard of – 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children sent to Britain mainly from Germany and Austria, but also Czechoslovakia and Poland to escape the threat of Nazi Germany. 

Most were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. 

Diane Samuels' play follows the life of just one of the Kindertransport children, Eva, played by Gabrielle Dempsey with a wonderful blend of charm and innocence as a child and then as a confused young women as her old and new lives clash. It is not easy to age from nine to 17 with little more than a hair ribbon and a new frock to help you but it would be easy to believe her Eva and Evelyn were two different actors. 

The play follows Eva from Hamburg to Manchester and a new home with Lil, played with Northern cheerfulness by Paula Wilcox who gives the impression it will take a lot more than Hitler and the Blitz to come between her and her new found only child. 

Paula Wilcox, who plays Lil and Janet Dibley who plays the older Evelyn

Cleverly intertwined with that story is the present day where Lil's granddaughter Faith is about to leave home and is helping to sort out the loft with her mother Evelyn to find things to take with her to her new flat. Evelyn, played by Janet Dibley, is motherly, in that annoying mother knows best way that mothers have, yet at the same time she seems aloof and distant. 

The normal, warm and close loving relationship seems missing, replaced by a coldness and a reluctance to let anyone past the outer walls of her world. 

It does not take a genius to work out the link between the threads, particularly when Faith finds a fairy tale book, a very dark version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the Ratcatcher,  – Der Rattenfänger in German. The question comes down to how and why Evelyn has become who she is. 

Director Andrew Hall cleverly separates the two threads by the use of impressive lighting and actors turning to statues when their story is not being told. Both stories occupy the same stage and are set in a theatrical parallel universe. 

Particularly effective were the moving, brooding clouds seen through the skylights and roof for scenes from the past, and the same sky static and less threatening in the present day. 

The Ratcatcher is important to Eva. It is her favourite fairy story, one which was frightening and exciting when she was a little girl with her real mother Helga, played with a fatalistic Jewish acceptance by Emma Deegan. Here is a mother who knows her likely future but is desperate for her daughter to survive, 

And Samuels uses the evil figure, a gruesome Halloween version of the Childcatcher from  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with hooked nose and long steel nails, as a symbol, to intimidate whenever Eva feels threatened or the black clouds of despair descend. 

Paul Lancaster gives us a rather scary spectre in a role that requires some quick changing  considering he is also a sort of production Everyman, or at least plays every man in the production. 

He is also the officious, anti-sematic German border guard who threatens to prevent Eva leaving, the billeting officer in Manchester who can't speak German but can speak English slowly and loudly, the railway porter who thinks Eva, or indeed any foreigner is a spy, the postman with his Adolf Hitler impressions and anyone else passing through what is very much a women's world. 

The inherent drama of Kindertransport is evident from what it was, children sent alone, usually with no English and with little more than the clothes they stood up in to a foreign land to stay with people they had never met. 

The drama of the play though is the journey of Eva from Hamburg to adulthood and the mental torment of Evelyn as she is made to confront her past. 

Three of the 10,000 mainly Jewish children who escaped he Nazis in 1938-39 leaving their parents behind to their fate

This is a fictional tale, but Samuels, who was in the audience at the Belgrade, was born and brought up in the Jewish community in Childwall in Liverpool with her first non-Jewish school being university, so Kindertransport was part of her shared heritage. 

Eva might not of existed but many like her did and her fictional story no doubt was reflected in the real lives and emotions of many of the child refugees. 

The set, from Janet Shillingford is dramatic before the play even starts, a loft with bare rafters open to the sky on a raised stage crammed at the front with pairs of shoes – overwhelming piles of shoes being one of the poignant and enduring images of Auschwitz. 

Then there is the lighting again, from Matthew Eagland, with a clever shuttering effect when Eva is on the train to freedom and subtle changes to indicate past and present, touches which add immensely to a production. 

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, on November 9th and 10th when the Nazi party paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung  (SA), Ernst Röhm's brownshirts, aided by non-Jewish civilians, attacked Jews and Jewish properties throughout Germany and Austria. 

It is thought at least 91 Jews were killed, a modest number in the light of what was to come, but 30,000 were arrested and placed in concentration camps. Jewish homes, schools and hospitals were ransacked and destroyed, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned and 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged. 

SHARDS OF GLASS

The name, in English, Crystal night, might sound like a romantic fairy tale, but in reality it referred to endless streets littered with shards of glass from the destruction of Jewish properties. 

That was the trigger for British Jewish and Quaker leaders to appeal to the Government for help. Entry requirements were waived, and group lists were accepted rather than individual applications being required and the first rescued children, a party of 200, arrived at Harwich on December 2. 

A further 10,000 arrived over the next nine months until the outbreak of war on 1 September, 1939. Many remained after the war, not surprising with no family, homes or life to return to, and no less than four of the Kinder became Nobel Prize winners. 

This is a production which takes you out of your comfort zone as an excellent cast create a fine piece of theatre to show the raw emotional cost of war for just one family - one of 10,000 - and that makes for an absorbing and worthwhile evening. To 2-10-13

Roger Clarke 

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