Hampstead Theatre and touring
The European Convention on Human Rights post-dated Britain's humanitarian gesture of unparalleled compassion in1938-1939 when 10,000 Jewish children were given shelter from the Nazi inferno.
The historical background is crucial to understanding the motif of the Ratcatcher that runs though the play. The play commences in the twilight period between the persecution of Jews and the outbreak of World War II. The persecution reached its pre-war apex with what was known as "Kristallnacht" (the night of broken glass), when German and Austrian Nazis supporters burned and destroyed 267 synagogues, killed 100 people, smashed 7,500 Jewish stores and incarcerated nearly 30,000 Jews in concentration camps.
Against the backdrop of wardrobes and boxes, creating a sense of homelessness and insecurity, the stage is shared in tandem by two sets of mother and daughter. A mother- daughter relationship from 1939 interweaves into events that take place in the mid-1970s.
Our young heroine Eva Schlesinger, superbly performed by Matti Houghton, is about to leave Nazi Germany to the safe shores of Britain. It is the night before her forced separation from everything she knew loved and grew up with. Her mother, Helga (Pandora Colin) is an elegant, warm yet restrained woman. She prepares Eva for the journey.
In the best German tradition Mrs. Schlesinger maintains routine. Bedtime story is punctually observed. The book Eva asks her mum to read to her is The Ratchacher.
The mention of the book shifts audience attention from the 1939 scene to the 1970s drama. Faith (Lily Bevan) is a young student contemplating moving out from home to a shared accommodation with fellow students. Her mother, Evelyn (Marion Bailey) is assisting with packing. Faith comes across a book - The Ratcacher - and a box of letters and pictures that reveals to her for the first time her mother's true identity. The grandmother Lil (Eileen O'Brien) is there on a visit.
The attention shifts back and forth between the scenes, fusing memories and their impact with events of the 1940s with Eva's desperate attempts to get her parents out of Germany.
Lil, convincingly characterised by Eileen O'Brien, is Eva's embracing foster mother. O'Brien moves in and out of the late 30s and 40s to the 70s with ease.
The tensions between Evelyn and Faith uncover the deep scars that Eva, now Evelyn, endured. The demonic figure of the Ratchacher (Alexi Kaye Campbell), dressed in dark and moving in a slow form of dance, hovers around Eva and continues to haunt her even after she turns her back on her past.
The task of juxtaposing events and character on stage can easily fall flat as the audience are not given the opportunity to become absorbed in either scene. In this production there was an element of artificiality in the move from one period to the other. The characters in the mid-seventies were the shadows of the characters from the past.
The overall performance was engaging and moving. However, the production would have benefited from a less conventional use of the stage.
"Kindertransport" is at Hampstead until 26th May and then tours to Southampton and Oxford
Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson