Theatre review: Kindertransport @ Manchester Opera House

Laugh-out-loud funny, heart-wrenchingly sad and beautifully acted.

Kindertransport is a story about mothers and daughters; separation and the unpredictability of memory in the backdrop of the Holocaust.

Written by Jewish Liverpudlian Diane Samuels, the play has received worldwide critical acclaim and is now considered to be a modern classic – even being taught in schools around the UK.

Following Kristallnacht – which translates into ‘Night of Broken Glass’ – on November 9 1938, the British government relaxed its immigration controls and allowed 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe to find safety in the UK.

These children travelled to Britain by train and boat, and once in Britain, either found refuge in hostels or were taken in by foster families – the Kindertransport children were usually the sole survivors of their families.

This production marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the last Kindertransport.

Samuels, however, stresses that her play is not about the Holocaust or even the journeys the children embarked on, but an examination of motherhood and the pain of separation that ultimately every mother and child will experience in life.

Kindertransport tells the tale of Eva, a young Jewish girl living in Hamburg in 1939, who is sent by her devoted mother Helga to live in Manchester with kind-hearted northern lass, Lil Miller.

Eva takes time to adapt to her new surroundings and learn the language, but she soon finds her feet, and with the help of Lil, forms a new identity as a British citizen – even anglicising her name and changing it to Evelyn.

Years later, when her daughter Faith discovers some old belongings and letters in the attic, Evelyn is forced to confront her suppressed and difficult past.

Directed by Mancunian actor-cum-director Andrew Hall, who has done a magnificent job in bringing a great power and depth of emotion to the performance.

The play is set over several different time zones and – although the set never changes – each shift in time zone smoothly bleeds into the next.

The most compelling scenes are the ones in which the young Eva and adult Evelyn both take to the stage.

Juliet Shillingford’s minimal set is highly effective in conveying the backdrop of the play – the shoes that line the raised set remind us of the concentration camps, while the bare foundations of the attic resemble a war-torn house.

Janet Dibley, of BBC’s Doctors, is exceptional as the emotionally-traumatised, obsessive-compulsive Evelyn, who has worked to suppress her past and forget her old identity.

Alicia Ambrose-Bayly (the understudy for Gabrielle Dempsey) gives a convincing performance, capturing the innocence and naivety of the 10-year-old Eva and the insolence and pessimism of 15-year-old Evelyn.

Maggie Steed, of Jennifer Saunders’ BBC comedy Jam and Jerusalem, portrays Eva/Evelyn’s adopted Mancunian mother Lil wonderfully, bringing a great humour to the performance, eventhough her character is perhaps a little too stereotypical of a northern ‘mam’.

In contrast, Emma Deegan’s portrayal of Helga, Eva’s broken mother, is incredibly powerful and poignant, yet haunting in her performance in this compelling, thought-provoking and incredibly touching play.

Word of advice, maybe take some tissues – and perhaps your mum too: you’ll want to hug her dearly at the end.

Kindertransport runs until March 29 at the Opera House

Related Articles