By Arthur Rochester
Since its first performance at Soho’s Cockpit Theatre in 1993 Diane Samuels’ seminal play has attained classic status and been taught as a set GCSE text. The poignant story of the escape from Nazi Germany to Britain of some ten thousand Jewish children, most of whom never saw their parents again, is given new topicality and relevance by current TV images of the plight of child refugees, emphasised during this production by thought-provoking foyer displays and a curtain-call appeal on behalf of refugee charities.
This intensely moving play, although obviously rooted in a large-scale historical event, is in fact an intimate family drama, which explores the emotional impact of that event on one child, her German mother, her British surrogate mother and her own daughter. In 1938 Hamburg, nine-year-old Eva endures the trauma of parting from her mother and the perils of a hazardous journey, finally arriving in Manchester. Through the gradual development of a loving relationship with an adoptive mother she becomes completely anglicised, changing her name from Eva to Evelyn. Forty years later, as an adult with a daughter of her own, from whom she has concealed her origins, she suffers further emotional turmoil when the truth about her past is discovered.
The play’s construction in which, for example, widely different time-frames are visited simultaneously in the same scene, presents unusual directorial challenges, which were met with assurance by Jessica-Ann Jenner. Her direction was inventive and unsentimental, achieving an emotional depth which was both absorbing and at times harrowing. Tony Jenner’s design of a realistic attic storeroom was used flexibly to suggest a disparate variety of other locations. Employing two levels to good effect together with creative lighting and sound, it helped the audience to keep up with frequent and sometimes confusing shifts of time and place. Back-projected images of Nazi Germany heightened the threatening atmosphere and costuming was unobtrusively appropriate, both to different periods and to individual characters.
The complexity of the play made considerable demands on characterisation, which were met by universally excellent performances from a fine ensemble cast. In the character of Eva, the young girl at the heart of the story, Edie Nelson, a Youth Theatre member making her debut in an adult production, believably depicted her progress from the age of nine to seventeen. Both her German-Jewish accent as a child and its gradual development into faultless English were convincing – although, given that the latter had been acquired whilst living in Manchester with a strongly Mancunian adoptive mother, it was a little surprising that it bore no regional trace. More importantly, however, Edie sensitively and at times commandingly communicated a great range of genuine emotions.
Portraying the same character in middle age, her name now anglicised to Evelyn, Julie Binysh, despite the lack of physical resemblance, created a fascinating portrait of an intensely complex character. The repression which was the outcome of her past and her determination to bury it, and her grief and torment when it was accidentally discovered by her own daughter, were powerfully and truthfully demonstrated. The role of Lil Miller, Eva/Evelyn’s warm and kindly adoptive mum, was played with tremendous attack by Heather Wain, in a superbly natural performance which lit up the stage and even added a few sorely-needed touches of comedy. Her Mancunian accent – presumably genuine – was employed to great effect and the compassion and the sensitivity with which she guided Eva’s development were beautifully illustrated.
Hilary Cordery gave a memorable account of Helga, Eva’s real mother, in which her sense of pain and loss and emotional scars were starkly communicated, especially in her superbly controlled physical acting, and Naomi Bailey was equally impressive as the assertive Faith, Evelyn’s own daughter, especially in her violent rejection of her mother after accidentally uncovering her hidden past. Clearly this story is told very much from a female perspective, but Richard Stewart added significantly to the tension as the Ratcatcher, a fantasy figure who is the embodiment of Eva’s fears, and also nicely differentiated brief but telling appearances by German and British officials.
This profoundly affecting human story of survival and the building a new life, which strikingly resonates with current world events, was told with skill and commitment by a highly talented company, all of whom should take great pride in their achievement.