The Opera House, Manchester; Tuesday 1st May, 2018
In November 1938, as violent fascism began to spread uncontrolled throughout every aspect of Germany society, the British government hastily passed legislation to organise a rescue mission that would eventually see thousands of predominantly Jewish children brought to foster homes in the UK. Most of these children travelled alone and, following the subsequent outbreak of war, they were often the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.
Written and first performed in the early 1990s, Kindertransport tells the harrowing story of nine-year-old Eva – an innocent child left traumatised by the forced separation from her parents in Hamburg. Hastily bundled onto a train heading towards an uncertain future, Eva eventually arrives into the care of her new foster mother, Lil, who takes the terrified child to start a new life in Manchester, away from the violent chaos of Nazi Germany.
The central character of Eva is played by two actors, each representing different epochs, yet both on stage at the same time: Leila Schaus takes a commanding lead role playing the younger version of Eva; with Suzan Sylvester in the role of Evelyn – the transition of Eva from a German child into Evelyn as an English lady is a core theme of the show. It is much more than a conformative change to a more Anglicised name, this is a forced transition that not only allows the outsider to feel more integrated but one which also seems to give her a small chance to shed the unbearable pain of her past.
Jenny Lee is excellent in the role of Lil, the kindly foster carer who takes the young Eva under her wing – Lil comes across as a pragmatic and sensible figure of authority, in a world where authority figures seem to have lost the plot completely. In amongst the pain of Eva’s suffering, Lil shows a calm and uplifting attitude of just getting on with things and leaving the past behind. In a performance that mainly dwells upon the impossible task of attempting to explain the horror of genocide to a child, the on-stage, forward-looking attitude and relatively positive demeanour of Lil serves as the only refreshing and tantalising glimmer of hope for dealing with seemingly unbearable traumas.
The story being told in Kindertransport is brutal and grim, but this is an excellent production that tells it well. Set in the attic of the family home in the 1980s, Evelyn’s daughter Faith stumbles across a series of mysterious artefacts that eventually force her mother to reveal the truth of a past which she’d much rather leave buried in the dusty old boxes that have held it trapped for decades.
When grandmother Lil enters the room all three generations enter into what seems to be a ferocious war of attrition, as accusations fly and shocking secrets are unwillingly unearthed. But the two older women eventually begin to share their recollections, which are enacted on stage by the childhood personification of Eva.
Kindertransport is a difficult piece of theatre to watch. The already difficult subject matter is made yet more depressing when seen from the perspective of a young child, who is truly nothing more than an innocent victim. But with powerful acting performances and beautifully orchestrated mood changes, Kindertransport is an excellent example of fine theatre which twists and pulls the mind of the audience into awkward and unexplored places that would not normally be appreciated or welcomed.
|Visual pleasure||The entire performance is set entirely in the attic of Evelyn’s house, creating an almost claustrophobic sense of pressure as the cramped room is where the pain and suffering of many decades lies hidden away. Excellent use of lighting to add a genuinely disturbing edge to the mysterious Ratcatcher character, who clearly came to embody the young Eva’s terrors.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||Beautiful use of background music, which drifted in and out of focus and thus very gently enhanced the overall sense of tension.||4|
|Architecture & Theme||The story is incredibly well written, at first the lead characters are almost annoying in the way that they argue – but each has a valid point and one of the biggest revelations is to acknowledge and understand that they’re all right to be angry and selfish in their actions and words.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding acting performances, most notably from Leila Schaus as the young Eva and also Jenny Lee as the well-meaning foster carer Lil.||5|
|Overall impact||This is quite a complex story, it takes a while to comprehend the present and past timelines that are portrayed on stage at the same time. But once it does the plot is enthralling, full of multiple twists and turns and a nagging sensation that there is far more to the story than is being said.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|