Thursday, 4 May 2017

Theatre Review - Kindertransport (Tower Theatre Company)

Know your number. If you don't know it, you might forget who you are.
The Kindertransport was a rescue effort prior to the Second World War, in which ten thousand predominantly Jewish child refugees were taken into Britain from Nazi-controlled territories to be fostered and schooled. Diane Samuels' play distills the experiences of numerous such children into one fictional character, Eva Schlesinger. And in Tower Theatre's production the poignancy of this young immigrant girl's story is captured superbly, demonstrating more than a little contemporary relevance.
The action of the play unfolds in a dual time-frame, with the adult Eva's daughter Faith uncovering a cache of photographs, letters and storybooks from her mother's childhood. Born in Hamburg, Eva was packed off aged ten for England undergoing a bewildering and terrifying journey - to meet with her adoptive mother, the kindly but no-nonsense Lil. Open-hearted young Eva, however, was a far cry from the grown-up Evelyn (she had now adopted the English form of her German name). The audience wonder along with Faith how Eva came to box off her childhood memories so literally and completely. Even with the Holocaust casting its shadow over the drama, the answer has a unique power to shock.

Tower's production is a finely-crafted piece of storytelling, and under Angharad Ormond's shrewd direction becomes a haunting evocation of a troubled childhood. The entire set is the attic where Eva's memories have been stored, so it's appropriate that the space resolves into her one-time Hamburg home, a rattling train carriage or a dock. The lighting is subdued, simultaneously intimate and secret, while the shadow-play on a background screen conveys a macabre storybook reminder of children being led far from home. Arguably most potent of all is the live soundscape - a haunting fusion of singing glasses and Jewish melodies played on piano strings by sound designer Colin Guthrie, like chimes of the past Evelyn is so reluctant to revisit. 
The cast is a strong ensemble, most of whom will be staying with the production for its June revival. Katrin Larissa Kasper plays the younger version of Eva, taking her from wide-eyed innocent to strong-minded young woman through subtle modulations in accent, mannerisms and spirit. It's a fine performance - embodying as it does all the fear and confusion of the Transport's young and vulnerable refugees. The various adult men she encounters are played by Paul Willcocks in the same leering mask (another well-judged innovation). All Willcocks' characterisations - from officious to jauntily racist, and in one case flesh-crawlingly malevolent - combine into Eva's scary experience of anonymous male authority.
As the mature Evelyn, Ruth Sullivan is remote and severe, her brittle exterior hinting at depths of emotion she dare not plumb. When she finally does give vent to what lies beneath, the moment is searing in its power. Amanda Waggott and Clare Joseph portray the play's two other mother-figures. As Lil, Waggott moves deftly between the two time-zones - a stern but loving foster-mother to Eva and the buffer between Evelyn and her daughter Faith. In both eras she's a welcome source of warmth, empathy and down-to-earth humour. 
Joseph meanwhile is quietly heartbreaking as Eva's calm and courageous blood-mother Helga. An early scene in which she teaches her daughter sewing skills for the migrant journey ahead is deceptively gentle, and returns to our minds with painful resonance later on.
Compassion runs deep in this production, but Kindertransport is ultimately a play of unsparing emotional honesty. It makes no concession to any audience expectations built up in the first act - possibly its greatest strength as a drama - and act two shocks as much as it moves. This is a story of mother-daughter relationships either forged in or tested by the same tumultuous 20th Century events, and the personal consequences of the Transport run deep for three generations of Eva's family. Survival, we are reminded, can come at a truly terrible cost. 
Having sold out at Theatro Technis last month, Kindertransport can be seen again at the Gatehouse Theatre, Highgate, from Saturday 24th June to Sunday 2nd July. Rachel Causer will be taking the role of Faith, with Annemarie Fearnley also joining the ensemble. This show is clearly a labour of love for director Ormond, done justice by her tightly-knit cast and creative team. It's also a hard-hitting and timely reminder of the plight of child refugees - and of the lifelong consequences such a childhood brings.

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