Theatre review: Kindertransport at Milton Keynes Theatre

Kindertransport. Picture by Robert Day.

Kindertransport. Picture by Robert Day.

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Kindertransport can be understood on several levels.

Being about the transportation of Jewish children from persecution and possible death in Nazi Germany, you may be forgiven for expecting that tragedy to dominate the play.

Kindertransport

Kindertransport

But playwright Diane Samuels was adamant that the play isn’t about the Holocaust, rather she wanted it to be about all relationships between mothers and daughters.

Does she achieve it? If so, much of the credit must also go to director Andrew Hall.

From the recurrent screeching of the England-bound train, echoed by the eerie sound of the deeply unsettling Ratcatcher’s pipe, in the opening scene, the tension could almost have been sustained by sound alone and it never relaxed its grip.

The clever switching between past and present is extremely intricate, sometimes resembling a dance when one character pauses then steps across five decades.

Inventive uses of a single room also sees the bed and wardrobe believably double up as a train and the room itself as a train station or fairytale streets of Hamelin.

Kindertransport starts with precocious Eva (Gabrielle Dempsey), aged 9, who is being prepared by her mother Helga (Emma Deegan) to be transported from Hamburg to England along with 9,000 other Jewish children, just before World War Two.

Interwoven with this is the story of English mother and daughter Evelyn (Janet Dibley) and Faith (Rosie Holden) based in, we have to presume, the 1980s.

The two stories are placed side by side on stage and the action switches between the two throughout.

You could even add to the mix Lil (Paula Wilcox), a different non-biological mum, who brightens the stage with much humour as the Mancunian mum taking in refugee story.

The most heart-wrenching story is unsurprisingly that of Eva, played with utter conviction down to the completely believeable twang of her German accent.

Her mother’s determination to make her independent before she leaves for England is very moving, with Deegan’s expressive face showing the buried pain she is hiding for her daughter’s sake.

As it goes on, the play seems more and more a study of parents remaining a mystery to their children, unintentionally in some cases.

As a result, Faith does not understand why her mother wants to forget her past; Eva does not comprehend Helga or her reasons for her perceived abandonment.

In a script of dozens of startling, often vicious, lines Eva tells her mother she wants to stay and die with her. Her mother does not understand why she is not just grateful to survive.

Does Samuels achieve her aim of a universal story?

I’m not so sure. Both sets of mothers and daughters have to endure extraordinary amounts of pain in their lives, so circumstances make the relationships not unique, but not common either.

And Samuels does so well to illustrate and imply the reasons for their complex characters, that the characters never become cliched.

But it is one aspect of a harrowing, sometimes even uplifting, section of history. And it is deeply, movingly told.