Pros: Engrossing central story
Cons: Less interesting secondary plot line
Being marched down narrow alleyways towards an unknown destination was an appropriately immersive start to this production of Diane Samuels’ 1993 play, Kindertransport. The story is of a nine-year-old Jewish girl sent alone from Nazi Germany to England for her own protection; and as the audience made its way around the side of the theatre in the early evening rain, we similarly had no idea what we would find waiting for us at our journey’s end.
What we in fact discovered was the well-equipped and comfortable Studio Theatre, arranged in a traverse configuration. The stage is lined with suitcases and cardboard boxes in William Fricker’s simple but elegant set design. The play starts with Helga (Gemilla Shamruk) preparing her daughter Eva (Hope Marks) for her lonely exodus. Only permitted to take clothes with her, one of the things Eva is leaving behind is her copy of The Rat Catcher (more familiar to us as the Pied Piper). This sinister child abductor is brought to disturbing life by Pete Dowse at key points throughout the play. Dowse also plays numerous authority figures, including an intimidating Nazi officer aboard Eva’s train, and the official who greets the disoriented girl when she arrives in England.
Eva is taken in by Mancunian Lil Miller (a warm performance from Evie Edgell) and the pair form an unconventional family unit as Eva waits forlornly for her parents to join her. This story is intercut with parallel scenes from a generation further down the line as Evelyn (Michelle Collins) deals with the prospect of her teenage daughter Faith (Mirrim Tyers-Vowles) leaving home.
The Holocaust casts a long shadow, and Eva’s plight is inevitably moving. As she grows up against the background of World War II, torn from her family but clinging to hope, we can’t help but feel for her. Unfortunately, I found the second story strand significantly less engrossing – some of the characters’ decisions seemed somewhat arbitrary, and in comparison to Eva’s tale these parts of the play lacked narrative impact. The final scenes work towards unifying the two storylines with a theme of how heritage can be either durable or transient, but it’s not enough to make a balanced whole. I was left engaged and involved but not as dramatically satisfied as I wanted to be.
Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company encompassing performance, education and outreach programmes. The cast itself comprises staff and graduates of Chickenshed courses alongside seasoned pros. The performances range from decent to captivating. Sound design by Dave Carey and Phil Haines contributes some lovely atmospheric notes, and Lou Stein’s direction is precise and efficient.
Kindertransport was originally staged at Soho Theatre after winning the Verity Bargate Award, and has since been a critical and commercial success. Chickenshed’s production is a polished revival of a play that reminds us of the multitude of small family sagas that played out against the backdrop of one of the darkest periods of modern history.
Author: Diane Samuels
Director: Lou Stein
Producer: Chickenshed Theatre
Box Office: 020 8292 9222
Booking Link: https://www.chickenshed.org.uk/kindertransport
Booking Until: 22 October 2016