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Kindertransport review at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch – ‘timely, but turgid’

Catherine Janke and Leila Schaus in Kindertransport at Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. Photo: Mark Sepple Catherine Janke and Leila Schaus in Kindertransport at Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. Photo: Mark Sepple
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Harkening back to a vanished historical moment when Britain willing sheltered child refugees, Diane Samuels’ softly-spoken tragedy commemorates 80 years since the Kindertransport saw some 10,000 Jewish children escape from Nazi Germany.

Despite a strong international cast and creative team, however, the production surprisingly struggles to generate an emotional charge. Director Anne Simon laces the highly analytical text with metaphorical images, exploring the tensions between literal experience and traumatic memories fraught with emotion. Yet, while intriguing, this approach leaves many of the play’s subtle, naturalistic beats underdeveloped.

Standing out amongst some inexcusably flat performances, Leila Schaus plays young evacuee Eva with finesse, conveying the precocious but isolated child’s gradual but shattering loss of innocence. Jenny Lee is equal parts kindliness and no-nonsense practicality as adoptive mother Lil, while Suzan Sylvester – who originated the role of Eva’s daughter Faith in the play’s 1993 debut – now wallows in misery as the grown-up, naturalised, and renamed Evelyn.

Matthew Brown, meanwhile, spends much of the show lurching around in the shadows as the Ratcatcher, personification of childhood fears and adult guilt, here visualised as a cowled and ragged hunchback.

The score, from Adrienne Quartly, is brittle and haunting, full of distant whistles and cello-string scrapes which emphasise moments where something dramatic could well be happening. Marie-Luce Theis’ equally atmospheric design places the action inside the shattered wooden frame of a house, where a series of trapdoors reveal, very literally, the dark foundations beneath the characters’ outwardly comfortable postwar life.

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Timely but turgid revival reflecting on the power of humanitarian action and the complexities of human nature