Tower Theatre Company
During the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig—a rescue effort which became known as Kindertransport. Many of the evacuees never saw their parents again, many of whom perished in the Nazi’s death camps.
Diane Samuels’s eponymous play, which won the Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate Award in 1992, tells the moving story of one such Jewish child, Eva. It is Hamburg, 1938, and Helga is spending her last few hours with her daughter Eva before she boards the train that will take her to England, and to safety. Eva fares well: she is loved and nurtured by her good-natured adoptive English mother. But, forty years later, and now fully Anglicised, ‘Evelyn’ faces another mother-daughter separation, when her own daughter, Faith, prepares to leave home.
Samuels plunges into difficult emotional waters with compassion, perception and courage. The play is replete with despair, loss, guilt, rejection and alienation. Memories haunt the present; secrets long suppressed force their way through years of repression and denial.
This is reflected structurally, as poignant scenes of Eva growing up in England are intercut with the tale of Evelyn’s tense, sometimes tempestuous, relationship with her own daughter Faith. Unable to process her harrowing experiences at the time of separation from her mother and adjustment to life in England, Evelyn has locked them away in an attic of the mind. It is the questions posed by the third generation, Faith, that re-open that attic, literally and figuratively, when Faith happens upon relics from her mother’s German childhood—a passport, letters from home. She confronts her mother about her past, triggering a shocking revelation.
Kam Bava’s single set for Tower Theatre Company's production (directed by Angharad Ormond) has to serve as a variety of locations, both past and present—a railway station, the attic of a suburban house in 1980s London, domestic Hamburg in the 1930s. The grubby, torn backdrop at times evokes the smoke pouring from a steam train; elsewhere the blank sheet of Evelyn’s erased past. Assorted cardboard boxes, suitcases and trunks suggest both transit and memory-deposits.
Subtle but telling contrasts of lighting (Rob Irvine) effect shifts between eras; sudden shadows and sweeping beams are fittingly unsettling. The upright piano positioned stage-right, topped with assorted bottles and glasses, provides an evocative musical soundscape while the whistle of singing glass rims pierces through the fabric shrouding the past (sound design by Colin Guthrie).
Katrin Larissa Kasper captures all of the young Eva’s complex, contradictory emotions as she prepares to leave her home: fear and excitement, bravado and anxiety. She conveys the child’s vivid imaginative response when her mother reads her the tale of the child-snatching rat-catcher, the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Kasper does need to work on her voice projection and accents, though, and, as the immediacy of Evelyn’s traumatic memories fades, so should her Germanic intonation.
Clare Joseph is a tender Helga, gently coaxing her daughter to sew a button onto her coat before her momentous departure—“you must learn to do things for yourself”—and secreting some gold jewellery, including a Star of David necklace, into the heel of Eva’s shoe. Amanda Waggott gives a relaxed and cheerful performance as Eva’s affectionate adoptive Mum, Lil.
The strongest performance comes from Ruth Sullivan whose brusque Evelyn emits a coldness which derives from a deeply-buried trauma of abandonment and rejection. Sullivan’s rigid body language is nuanced but strongly betrays Evelyn’s emotional constriction.
However, the register and pace of the second part of the play are a little unvarying and the drama takes too long to reveal its secrets. Ultimately, psychological dislocation and cultural displacement seem less important than the age-old ‘mother-daughter’ discord and divergence.
As a result, the small male roles—a fantasy rat-catcher, a bullying Nazi guard, a shambling English gent—seem less credible and make only a tangential dramatic contribution. However, Paul Willcocks, as the composite characters, sports disfiguring masks designed by Fenella Lee, whose grotesqueness conjures the terror of a child’s nightmares.
Moreover, at times the play seems to move too quickly between past and present, and the scenes between Ruth Sullivan’s Evelyn and Poppy Lowles’s Faith can seem repetitive, as Faith repeatedly—and at times with a grating adolescent whine—berates her mother.
Helga’s sacrifice saved her daughter’s life but the selflessness of so many Jewish parents also sowed the seeds of psychological crisis for the children who survived them. With immigration and the refugee crisis in Europe at the top of today’s political, social and ethical agendas, Samuels’s play asks pertinent questions of its audience.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour