This is a play that’s particularly special. It follows the life of Lisa Jura whose blossoming teenage life in Vienna is cut short as she’s sent away on the Kindertransport to Britain, leaving behind her beloved family and cherished weekly piano lessons. Holocaust-related memoirs of young people are often tales of a life interrupted and then rebuilt. This tale is no exception. Everyone knows about the Kindertransport: around 10,000 Jewish children evacuated to Britain to escape probable death. However, the story of what actually happened to these children once they reached Britain is often ignored in favour of our self-congratulatory pats on the back for being a nation so noble and kind.
Hershey Felder directs a compelling production. We follow Lisa’s journey from Vienna to London and focus on her eventual home – a crowded hostel in Willesden Lane full of waifs and strays from across Europe. To Lisa’s joy there’s a piano in the hostel so she can continue her dream of studying to become a concert pianist. Left without a teacher, Lisa must teach herself. Left without a family, Lisa must create one with hostel friends.
The play is special because it is a solo performance by Mona Golabek, herself a concert pianist and the real-life daughter of Lisa (who did, eventually, also become a concert pianist). Like mother, like daughter. A daughter plays her mother. A daughter plays the music her mother once played in order to emotionally survive the war. So often Holocaust stories are of the trauma passed down through generations but Golabek’s presence on the stage reveals a different sort of legacy. It is the passion for music that survives and helps to heal the wounds of war, although scars remain.
The set is striking and fitting. Its focus is an imposing Steinway piano placed centrally, representing music’s central importance in Lisa’s life. Framing the entire stage are disconnected pieces of a huge antique-like picture frame, of the type suitable for a rich Vienna family portrait – but the pieces are broken, just like Lisa’s family. This effectively echoes the themes of the play – a portrait of a shattered family, a life story retold and framed by others, memories now only encased in family portraits. Original footage and photographs are projected into other empty frames hanging from the ceiling, offering a window that connects us from the present to the past.
Live music drives the entire piece, at times representing passages of time, at other times mirroring Lisa’s emotions. We see Lisa playing the piano to drown out the sound of bombs, because what better way is there to silence and combat terror? It’s a love letter to the importance of art in difficult times: A reminder of Brecht’s “Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
Golabek performance is a remarkable achievement; she adopts a wide range of voices to colour the story. At times, I felt she had been a little over-directed with some stylized movements appearing too mannered. Yet at only ninety minutes long, this production nipped by. The story was slightly too idealistic, the classic view of wartime Britain as a heroic, stoic nation. But, perhaps to an outsider, that is how Britain appeared. However, it also avoided tipping into over-sentimentality and gave us the hard truths (yes, the hostel did get bombed, yes her parents did perish) offering a well-rounded picture of Lisa’s London life.
The play is a prayer for “every mother and child who had the courage to save their child by saying good-bye.” But, more than this, although never explicitly stated, it’s a subtle, urgent message for the West to do better in the current refugee crisis. To not call them ‘cockroaches’, to not draw cartoons of drowned children, but instead to open hearts and doors as nobly as many British people of the past. It’s a message that banged on my heart as my throat tightened and I looked up at the ceiling to blink back tears.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is on until 27th February 2016. Click here for tickets.