The End of Everything Ever
New International Encounter (NIE)
The End of Everything Ever has one of the most unusual openings I've seen. I tried to hand my ticket to the girl at the door of the main theatre, only to be told that the play was actually starting in the foyer and that those musicians I'd passed on the stairs, who were dressed like Eastern European travelling players, were part of the action. Feeling slightly foolish and thinking I should have noticed something was afoot, I sloped back down, trying to stay out of the way of the cast who were proffering schnapps or other spirits to any members of the audience who were interested. Was this some sort of attempt at bribery to cover up an indifferent play?
I needn't have worried because the play, devised by the company in a small Czech Village in 2005, proved to be a poignant story about the Kindertransport scheme (where thousands of German and Austrian Jewish children left their families and escaped to the relative safety of England just prior to World War II) told with humour and through music.
The festive mood of the opening provides a stark contrast with what is to follow. The story focuses on 6-year-old Agata and the older members of her musical family. Her childhood is far from idyllic because of her mother's neuroses and the constant rows between father and teenage son. But it is 1938 and even this relative normality is about to be shattered forever by the Nazis. Each of the cast members has a clock which they bring out at intervals, to show that time is ticking inexorably towards the end of an era.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Agata who cannot fully understand why the world is changing around her. She is forced to confront adult issues, but cannot leave behind her childish concerns. So when she witnesses a Nazi thug breaking into a bakery what really shocks her is not the ensuing assault on the baker, but that he took a cake and did not pay for it.
Agata's family decide that they are doomed but that Agata may have some chance of freedom so they enrol her on the Kindertransport scheme. The children are identified by a simple label around their neck that contains a number. Agata absentmindedly eats the label, which means that she has no way of getting back home.
The script loses momentum somewhat when Agata arrives in England; partly because the audience realises that however bad her new situation is it can't be as horrendous as the situation she left behind, and partly because the characters she encounters seem a bit too similar to the ones she left behind. The potential disaster of her losing the label is never fully capitalised on and we only really feel the poignancy of the situation when she finally gets a letter from the Red Cross in 1952 revealing her identity but we realise this news may be too little, too late.
NIE are a trans-European company performing plays in several different languages often within the same production. It was a little disconcerting to begin with, hearing actors with English accents playing Germans, mixed in with other actors with Eastern European accents. But eventually this ceased to matter and while it would have helped if you understood a modicum of German, there's really no difficulty in working out what a Nazi is saying, whatever language it's in. This is the third part of the trilogy devised by NIE using different characters but in the same era.
Director Alex Byrne worked hard at drawing the audience into the centre of the action (which is at the core of NIE's values) and largely achieved this aim. At times, however, the actors' performances were a little unrestrained and at certain points the script had an improvised feel. Katerina Houskova's design was insightful and practical, the centrepiece of which was an imposing wardrobe which served as a train, a lift and a receptacle for four cast members to hide in (albeit rather uncomfortably).
Let us hope that the title of this play does not herald the threatened end of the BAC. The range of work and the chances given to new writers and performers would surely make the borough and city much poorer.
Lucy Ribchester reviewed this production at the Traverse, Edinburgh, where it was part of the Imaginate Children's Theatre Festival.
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart