Review: Kindertransport ★★★★ – Diane Samuels’ landmark drama remains ever powerful in this imaginative anniversary production

It’s 25 years since Diane Samuels’ powerful drama first moved audiences, with something that was new to many. Since then the story of the Kindertransport children has entered public consciousness, thanks to high-profile real-life stories as well as a succession of productions of Samuels’ play. This anniversary production is especially timely, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), when the Nazis incited violence against Jews across Germany – a chilling curtain-raiser to the Holocaust. It also has new urgency, chiming with the stories of families fleeing persecution across the world, desperately seeking refuge, facing separation.

Part of the play’s appeal is its entirely original take on the story. Working seamlessly across different time periods, Samuels examines how the flight of one little girl affects three generations of women. On the eve of war, Eva’s family manage to secure a place on a Kindertransport to Britain, where kindly Lil has agreed to take her in. Eva’s mother Helga is helping her pack and trying to prepare her for heart-breaking separation. In the late 20th century, Evelyn trawls through the attic with daughter Faith, looking for useful stuff to take to university and reminiscing together, while grandma Lil offers tea and more memories. It doesn’t take much detective work to guess at the nature of discoveries from Evelyn’s past, which she has kept hidden from Faith.

The action cuts between Germany and Britain, the 30s and the 90s. Magic realism invades the stage in the threatening form of the only male character, the Pied Piper, stealer of children, who morphs into a bullying Nazi guard on the train and male officials in London and Manchester, little Eva’s eventual destination, who, though well-meaning, seem threatening to the child.

This revival’s standout success is the stunning idea of making it a co-production between Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg. Casting Luxembourgers as the German mother and daughter works beautifully. Catherine Janke’s bleakly tragic Helga and Leila Shaus’s haunting Eva, with of course authentic accents, contrast effectively with the more down-to-earth Brits, and it’s all the more telling because Eva grows into Evelyn. Suzan Sylvester’s Evelyn is entirely believable as that troubled older self and Jenny Lee’s Lil is wonderfully warm and motherly – and indeed grandmotherly. Shaus is utterly compelling, heart-breaking as the eager-to-please uncertain child, and then the spiky teenager and Hannah Bristow’s Faith contrasts as the more self-assured modern teenager. Whether clad in a sinister bundle of rags as the Ratcatcher or a series of uniforms, Matthew Brown is always convincing.

Director Anne Simon, who has worked extensively in Europe, handles the material with authority and imagination, aided hugely by Luxembourger designer Marie-Luce Theis’ spacious, wooden-beamed set, suggesting both attic and railway station, atmospherically lit by Nic Farman. The production illumines Samuels’ vital play just as it deserves for new and returning audiences.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Mark Sepple

Kindertransport runs until Saturday 24 March 7.30pm (Tue & Wed), 8pm (Thu-Sat), 230pm (Thu & Sat only). £12.50-£29. Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch RM11 1QT. www.queens-theatre.co.uk

Then touring to Ipswich (17-21 Apr), Richmond (23-28 Apr) and Manchester (1-5 May). For further details see the JR listings nearer the time or visit the ATG website.