Pipeline Theatre’s Transports, first performed in 2013, has been revived for a national tour, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Though the play never makes any explicit reference to the current refugee crisis, it nonetheless offers a fascinating and intensely powerful insight into the emotional impact of being forced from one’s home and into a strange, and sometimes hostile, environment.
Transports is the story of two teenage girls. Lotte, the quiet, polite daughter of a rich Jewish family in Germany, gets on a train for England in 1939, not realising that she’s saying goodbye to her loving parents for the final time. Years later, Lotte waits anxiously for the arrival of her first foster child, a sullen fifteen-year-old named Dinah, who never knew her parents and likes to boast about the time a doctor said she had psychopathic tendencies. The two girls couldn’t be more different – and yet their lives end up on parallel tracks, as both struggle to adapt to the new home they never asked to be sent to, and to cope with the traumas of their past.
The girls’ interlocking stories are seamlessly presented in flawless performances from its cast of two. Juliet Welch plays the older Lotte – kind-hearted, anxious, who swears by her weekly routine and talks too much when she’s nervous – and Mrs Weston, who takes in the teenaged Lotte on her arrival in England and soon grows to love her. (She also, briefly, plays Lotte’s mother.) Hannah Stephens, meanwhile, takes on the challenge of playing the hugely contrasting roles of the two teenagers. It’s incredible to watch the chemistry between the two actors, and how they’re transformed in every way – clothes, voice, body language – as they switch from one character to the other and back again.
Alan Munden’s set is simple and effective, dominated by two huge train tracks that run from floor to ceiling and frame the action. Everything we don’t see is brought to life by sound effects: passing traffic, the sounds of the school playground, and even Lotte’s cat, Oskar, feel as real as if they were right in front of us. During the opening scene, as Lotte and Dinah stood by the side of the road, I swear I could smell petrol fumes, and have no idea if this was an extraordinary attention to detail or just my imagination.
Unsurprisingly for a story that deals with the Holocaust and childhood trauma, Transports packs quite a punch, particularly in the second act (one scene drew an audible gasp from the audience; another had us all in floods of tears). The addition of poetry, in a surprising twist that makes us view Dinah’s character in a whole new way, only increases the emotional intensity – not to mention the revelation that Lotte’s story is based on that of a real person – designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl.
On the way out, someone asked me if I’d enjoyed the play, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I’m not sure this is the kind of story that you can enjoy. It’s intense, and shocking, and it made me feel very, very sad – not just for Lotte, Dinah and Liesl, but because now, all these years later, there are still people going through this kind of trauma every single day.
But was it brilliant? Absolutely. Transports is probably one of the most original and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. Beautifully performed and lovingly produced, it’s a hugely important play that deserves to be seen.