In the months that went before September 1939 almost 10,000 predominantly Jewish children were transported to England from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Diane Samuels’ devastating play tells the story of one of these children, Eva Schlesinger, and how the necessity of leaving her family, her language and culture had resonances that she could not shake even forty years later.
The play moves back and forth between time periods, from Germany in 1938 and Eva’s exodus, to Manchester of the early eighties where she is now a mother trying to decide what to do with her past and how to deal with her own daughter. In effect, there are two interacting plays being performed: one that presents a dark and frightening story of a little girl dislocated from her home, the other a very modern exploration of the now adult Eva’s psychology, hints of PTSD and how the traumatic events of war continue to shape her even in peace time. The stage is an attic room cluttered with cases and boxes and wooden beams hang in arches above. An ever-rolling cloud scene rolls along through the windows. This surprisingly simple setting distinctly contrasts the complexity of the narrative and the fractured chronology through which we experience it.
There are some powerful performances from the small and almost exclusively female cast, particularly from Gabrielle Dempsey as the young Eva who has to transition her accent from thick German to thick Mancunian throughout the course of the play, as well as show the development of a playful young girl to a more haunted adolescent. Paula Wilcox as Lil, the Mancunian wife and mother who takes her in, adeptly shifts between time periods, and always manages to provide a comic note even in the most emotionally charged scenes.
I found out that my dad’s parents, who had escaped Germany in the late 30s, took in a Kindertransport child, who lived with my dad’s family for several years. There were some strange similarities in the play: Eva’s mother hides her watch and some jewellery in the heels of her daughter’s shoes; my dad’s friend has kept to this day a cigarette box, Marcovitch Black and Whites, that contains her mother’s pearl necklace, pearl earrings and ruby engagement ring.
One of the harrowing issues that the play confronts is what happened to the families of the Jewish children who came to England. For many, their parents and relations did not survive; for some, their parents managed to escape and the child, who has been through so much, who has forgotten the language, has stopped practising the religion, must decide what kind of connection still remains to this family member who is now little more than a stranger.
There is so much more to say about the play, from the excellent direction by Andrew Hall to the subtle and effective lighting changes by Matthew Eagland. But, in the end, what lingered in my mind most of all was how Samuels gets to decide who survives and gets to redefine what survival means: she seems to suggest that it is inextricably tied to identity – that survival is about more than just remaining alive, it is about keeping hold of who you are.
Kindertransport is on tour until the end of March. For more information and to book tickets, visit here.