By: Diane Samuels
Directed by: Polly Teale
Company: Shared Experience
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Friday 2nd March 2007
This was a very moving play, with a surprising amount of humour. It’s based on the experiences of the Jewish children who were sent away from Germany just before WWII, to England, many of whom never saw their families again. This play focuses on one child, Eva, who, at nine years old is sent away to England by her parents. She is taken in by a family in Manchester, grows up there, and eventually rejects her original family to maintain her Englishness. We see the story both in the past, reliving Eva’s journey and experiences, and also in the present, as Evelyn (her new name) tries to keep her previous life a secret from her teenage daughter. Her daughter is persistent, however, and with the help of her grandmother, the woman who took Eva in all those years ago, a truth of a sort emerges. Throughout all of this, there is the figure of the Ratcatcher, as in the Pied Piper, a story told to Eva as a child, and which should serve as a dire warning never to tell children scary stories. Eva is terrified of this figure when it’s just a story, but when it takes on flesh and blood through Nazi persecution, her terror is multiplied, and affects her life and the way she relates to others profoundly. Hence her daughter’s insistence on knowing about her mother’s past – she knows there’s something missing, and she’s appalled that her mother could wilfully keep it from her, when it’s part of who she is as well. Of course, to her mother it represents all her fears, so she doesn’t want to face it, but through this confrontation, she seems to come to a gradual acceptance of her past, even if it’s not all forgiven and forgotten.
The whole production of this play was excellent. All the performances were perfect, and the interweaving of the stories and the time elements was masterful. We were shown so much about human suffering, and courage and compassion, that I was moved to tears. I wasn’t sure about the Ratcatcher at first – he just seemed to collapse onto the stage and crawl around for a while, but eventually the symbolism took hold, and Evelyn’s final identification of the Ratcatcher with her mother was very powerful. I increasingly saw the Ratcatcher as more of a victim than a figure of terror, as the character’s make up and behaviour became more tortured. And I particularly liked the way I could feel sympathy for the various points of view and the choices which had been made, without judging or supporting any specific person. All the women were tremendously strong characters, and showed great courage in the face of their difficulties. It was also nice to see a genuinely kind mother figure for once, in the shape of the Mancunian woman who takes Eva in and supports her with an amazing degree of understanding throughout her life in England.
The set was very evocative. It was a large attic space, with lots of “storage solutions” as they’re called nowadays – several wardrobes, chests of drawers, trunks and boxes lined the space, and various items of bric-a-brac were scattered around or piled in a corner. There was also a ladder resting on a cam ceiling, which was used to get Eva on and off her ship to England. Wardrobe doors doubled as room doors, and Eva did a fair bit of climbing over the furniture and boxes – good for showing us the scene settings, and also evoking the natural way children behave.
The one man in the cast played several parts. Apart from the Ratcatcher, he was also a German official on the train taking the children to the boat, who stole Eva’s money, but let her keep her mouth-organ, as well as giving her a sweetie – he thought he was being so good! He returned as a postman who delivers Eva’s Ratcatcher book from her mother, when they could still get post through, and who jokes with her about the Nazi salute. And he’s also an unpleasant railway guard who intimidates Eva when she’s waiting for her parents to arrive – they almost made it, but war broke out a few days too soon.
Eva’s rejection of her natural mother after the war was a very moving scene. I could see both points of view – her mother has never stopped loving her, and still sees Eva as her daughter, with the other mother just a temporary relationship, as if Eva had simply been a lodger. Eva/Evelyn, on the other hand, has built a life for herself, has been through untold suffering, trying to get her parents the papers they need to get out of Germany and join her, and now she’s not the little girl who left her mother before the war. Even then, her mother had been pushing her to do things for herself, and to stand on her own feet. Now she’s doing it, and both of them are suffering.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me