Kindertransport at the Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
I live in a country that used to welcome immigrants. Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport captures some of the oft-forgotten history of the Jewish children sent away from Germany, Austria and Poland before the outbreak of World War II to be rehomed in ‘safe’ countries, including the UK. Yet as soon as war breaks out, in one ugly scene, a railway guard is already ready to brand one of the fostered children a ‘spy’, insisting that she should have stayed in her home country. For the refugee child, home is a fragile and contingent concept.
Fiona Buffini’s production – the director’s last as Associate Director of Nottingham Playhouse – is deeply invested in ideas of home. Madeleine Girling’s set is a fantastically cavernous attic, filled with the detritus of a long life lived in stability, yet full of unknown memories and dark secrets. Characters emerge from among the boxes, or tower above them in the shadows. This is in many ways a memory play, with the memories made material in the clutter that the central characters are both tied to and overwhelmed by.
At the heart of the play are four women: Eva/Evelyn, the German refugee, played by Jenny Walser as a child and Cate Hamer as an adult; her foster mother Lil; her grown-up daughter Faith; and her birth mother Helga. The play deftly juxtaposes two timelines, Eva’s childhood and adulthood, and the production’s most fluent moments come as Lil segues seamlessly between talking to her granddaughter in the present – as Faith uncovers the truth of her mother’s origins for the first time – and her vulnerable, newly arrived refugee charge in the past. Surrounded by boxes, the four women are drawn ever closer together as the memories of the past intrude on, and threaten to disrupt, the present.
In many ways, this becomes a story about immigrant experience. While much of the first half focuses on the trauma of a child leaving her home country and longing for her parents, it is the superior second half that drills down to the real unspoken demons in the attic, as Evelyn reveals that her birth mother survived the war and came to Manchester to fetch her, but that Evelyn rejected her given name of Eva and refused to leave with Helga. That traumatic choice aligns Helga, in Eva/Evelyn’s mind, with The Ratcatcher, a shadowy figure drawn from childhood fairy tales, whose eyes tempt young children towards him. Casting her own mother as the Ratcatcher, Evelyn’s rejection of her past is also a rejection of her home country; Faith, the second-generation immigrant, by contrast, longs for the ‘context’ of her missing history, and to know more about her Jewish and German heritage.
The emotions are raw and the shocking reveal of Helga’s survival brings a visceral edge to Eva/Evelyn’s story. Walser and Hamer anchor the production with lovely performances that evoke both the wide-eyed innocence of the young girl’s first experiences of England and the chain-smoking, repressed guilt of the older version, so desperate to assimilate that she has developed compulsive tendencies around the crockery and cutlery that fill up her house. Both actors play fantastically off Denise Black, who as Eva’s foster mother Lil brings a grounded Mancunian common sense to her role. While her brusque patience is perhaps a little too saintly and wholesome, much of the play’s humour comes from Lil’s unique approach to parenting, letting little Eva have a cigarette and pledging to teach her enough English so that she can get her packets from the corner shop.
The weakness of the play is in the contemporary storyline, the drama of which emerges from Faith suddenly and cruelly demanding to know everything about her mother’s past with no regard for Evelyn’s own wishes or feelings. The sudden rage on Faith’s part is justified in clunky exposition about Evelyn’s qualities as a mother, all of which is explained rather than shown, and the play’s weaknesses are not helped here by the actors beginning their argument at high pace and volume, leading to a somewhat monotonous shouting match where some more variety and nuance would have been welcome. Much better is Evelyn cradling her younger self and facing off against the bitter shadow of her mother, hollow-eyed and distraught at her daughter’s refusal to accompany her to America.
Buffini’s eye for compelling visuals is in evidence throughout, particularly in the nightmarish cameos of the Ratcatcher standing in silhouette, Freddy Krueger claws outstretched as he receives a line of tiny refugee children. The ghosts that haunt Evelyn’s attic are not banished easily. But more crucially, Kindertransport paints a complex picture of the refugee experience that is a useful corrective to right-wing narratives of immigrants refusing to assimilate. Here, the tragedy is the over-eagerness to assimilate at the cost of one’s own heritage and history; a history we need more than ever.
Kindertransport is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 20th October. Click here for more information