Chickenshed is a truly inspirational theatre company, well known for its education and outreach work, and its commitment to integration and inclusivity. Knowing this, one feels kindly disposed to their work, especially when their production is on such a worthy topic as ‘Kindertransport’ surely is.
The production’s opening demonstrates an exciting understanding of its subject. The audience were made to wait by a man in 1930s/40s attire, who took us – several at a time – to another man, similarly dressed, who led us on, while train sounds blared out at us. We were left alone to walk another stretch, then greeted in the building by another man, whilst a sinister looking older gentleman glared at us silently as we filed in. This uncertainty and suspense was evoked to put us in the mindset of how German Jewish children travelling to England before the Second World War must have felt. It makes one wonder about the potential of a entirely immersive production of Kindertransport. At the interval, as we filed out through the corridor, spectators noticed how the doors we passed had little platform number signs on them, and how the wall to our right had photos of real life Kindertransport Kinder. This, too, was a really nice detail.
The production itself is split between the present and the past. It is the story of one particular refugee child, a girl called Eva (Hope Marks), and what becomes of her after she leaves home. The multi-award-winning text, that has been translated into multiple languages and enjoyed great success, is not the easiest to work with and there was something of a mismatch of styles between performance and scripted work. The subject matter is interesting, but there are difficulties with the writing. Some of the exchanges feel unrealistic (as my companion noted, arguments came across more like a series of “withering sound bites” than a true, messy verbal fight), some of the language was overwrought, some bits were heavy-handed, or had a little too much exposition.
The acting appeared generally committed to clarity; to delivering the lines so that the story could be well understood and the surface emotions of the characters noted. It made me wonder if the show was expected to bring in many children, and checking the details online, I see it is deemed appropriate for kids ages 12+ (I would argue that, with the exception of a single swearword, much younger audience members would be able to attend and enjoy the performance). The problem here is that where more nuanced, complex characterisation might have contextualised some of the oddities of the script, this simpler style somewhat underscored awkwardness. For example, to return to the arguments, the fight scenes lacked the build up of anger that would turn them into emotional climaxes, and I wanted to see performers shout over each other a bit, I wanted to see them struggle with their memories in the heat of the moment, so that some of the more outrageous lines (“Am I Hitler?”/”You might as well have been”) seemed more the product of passion and confused, complex emotions, and less like a sincere and incorrect judgment.
The traverse does not make the actors’ jobs any easier. They are made to cover a lot more ground (literally), whereas a narrower, end-on staging might have concentrated the action and the energies, creating the claustrophobia which would make creepy moments (such as the appearance of the rat-catcher) more sinister.
However, it is important to note the show was not without its powerful moments and scenes – there was a lot of warmth when Evie Edgell’s Lil meets Marks’ Eva. Similarly Michelle Collins as Evelyn delivers the desperate comforting of Eva with intensity and a shared energy provoked by fear in a way that was incredibly moving. The two flashbacks between Marks and Gamilla Shamruk (playing Eva’s mother, Helga) in the latter half of the play were incredibly poignant – by far the best scenes of the piece, in terms of writing and acting. As the run continues, I am sure the show will continue to evolve.
Moreover, the production has already done a lot of active good: it has engaged and inspired youth theatre members and students. It has given a young man with cerebral palsy the experience of participating and observing in the rehearsal process so that he can get closer to his ambitions of becoming a professional writer and director. It will attract audiences who have never been to the Chickenshed before, which will help get even more people involved in their good work. It will make audience members think about the children and the adults who were so devastatingly affected by the Holocaust, and this may, in turn, make spectators consider the individuals – young and old – in danger now. My companion commented on how lone kids from Syria weren’t being taken in now, and wondered if she could take in a child. It is one thing to watch this show and judge it as a theatre critic, but I believe in addition to this, one must appreciate what it can do, beyond the area of the studio’s traverse stage.
Kindertransport is playing Chickenshed Southgate until 22 October. For more information and tickets, see Chickenshed’s website.
Photo: Daniel Beacock