Review: And Then They Came For Me at The Hope Theatre

The title of James Still’s harrowing play about the Holocaust has a double significance. On the one hand, it’s a factual statement made by 15-year-old Eva to describe her arrest by the Nazis – an arrest that led to several months in Auschwitz, and the loss of her father and brother. But it also recalls the haunting final line of Martin Niemöller’s well-known poem: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The Holocaust is one of those moments in history that feels almost mythical; we all grow up hearing about it, but it’s so impossible to imagine such brutality that unless you have a personal connection to those events, it doesn’t feel quite real. And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank doesn’t allow us to shrug it off so easily, though – in no small part because the production was personally requested by Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, who approached the director, June Trask, and asked her to take the show on tour around the UK.

Photo credit: Moondog Productions

Eva herself also appears in the play, which uses a unique combination of video footage and live action to tell her story, along with that of Ed Silverberg (formerly Helmuth ‘Hello’ Silberberg) and their mutual friend, Anne Frank. All three were young teenagers when the persecution of the Jews began, and so we see the nightmare through two sets of eyes: those of the adult Eva and Ed looking back on what happened, and those of the confused children trying to comprehend the terrifying ordeal they’re living through.

The play deals first with the rapid spread of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in the early 1940s, and the attempts of Eva, Ed, Anne and their families to find safety in Amsterdam. It then kicks into another gear altogether with a portrayal of the unspeakable horror experienced by Eva and her mother, Anne and so many others in Auschwitz, where human lives were treated as utterly worthless and a split second decision could mean the difference between life and death. The scenes within the camp are sensitively and minimally portrayed, but the outstanding cast – Gemma Reynolds, Leo Graham, Bethan Kate-Tonkin and James Coupland – ensure that we feel every moment of their fear, pain and grief, and are themselves visibly shaken by the performance’s poignantly staged conclusion.

Photo credit: Moondog Productions

Eva Schloss felt this play needed to be seen by audiences around the UK, not only so that her family’s ordeal can be remembered, but so that we can take steps to ensure it’s never repeated. That’s an easy idea to dismiss – surely we’d never allow such a thing to happen now – but this play reminds us that it happened once before, and the world let it happen. We only have to read the news to see that we’re headed back in that direction: millions of people around the world have been forced to flee their homes; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rife across Europe and the USA; far-right groups are on the rise, emboldened by the anti-immigration rhetoric of politicians. It’s a frightening picture, and one that will only get worse if left unchecked. The best way we can honour the memory of Anne Frank, Heinz and Erich Geiringer, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Holocaust, is to speak up now – while we still can.

For information about future productions, or to book a performance of And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank for a school, organisation or public group, visit the website.

Review: Anything That Flies at Jermyn Street Theatre

When we hear the word “refugee”, there’s a certain picture that comes to mind – and it’s fair to say Otto Huberman, the elderly man in Judith Burnley’s new play Anything That Flies, is as far from that picture as you can get. 50 years after the Holocaust killed his family, he’s living in a nice flat in Belsize Park, having made his name and a comfortable living from inventing – among other things – a popular brand of speaker. After he suffers a mild stroke, his concerned daughter engages her friend Lottie to come and take care of him, much to his disgust. Not only is he fiercely independent, he also objects to Lottie’s heritage as a member of an aristocratic German family – but it turns out she has a tragic history of her own, and the two may have more in common than Otto thinks.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Otto’s cantankerousness allows for plenty of humorous moments, and the developing understanding and affection between the two characters is certainly heartwarming. More than anything, though, the play is a quietly devastating portrayal of traumatic loss – of family, friends and country – and its lasting impact over five decades. What the play does particularly well is to challenge assumptions: the idea, for instance, that anyone who wasn’t Jewish in 1940s Germany couldn’t possibly have suffered, or that a refugee who makes it to a safe (or, to use Otto’s word, sane) haven, their problems are somehow immediately at an end.

The production, directed by Alice Hamilton, also succeeds on a personal level, with two beautiful performances from Clive Merrison and Issy van Randwyck. Otto is an old man, increasingly frail and confused after his stroke, and Clive Merrison captures his volatility to perfection. He’s simultaneously proud and intellectual, rude and wildly inappropriate, frightened and haunted by loss – and any one of these personality traits can come out at any given moment.

As Lottie, Issy van Randwyck bears it all stoically, refusing to rise to her patient’s bait, though clearly troubled by both his repeated labelling of her as a Nazi and his growing physical and mental vulnerability. She’s a classy, intelligent woman, and like her we find ourselves wondering how she ended up on her hands and knees cleaning up an old man’s latest bathroom emergency; it’s only later that we come to understand she’s repaying a debt for an imagined crime committed in her childhood.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Emily Adamson and Neil Irish’s living room set fits perfectly in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, with realistic light and sound from Elliot Griggs and Max Pappenheim. In fact, the production is relentlessly spot on in its attention to detail; the above mentioned bathroom emergency, for instance, leaves little to the imagination, and even before Otto seemingly breaks the fourth wall to relive the night his family was taken (a horrifying story that finally explains the play’s title), we feel included and completely at home in his flat.

Anything That Flies is on the surface a touching story about two very different people finding some common ground. But beneath that surface is something far darker, an exploration of the nature of loss on multiple levels – and it’s here that the play really makes an impact. This well-crafted production of a powerful new play is definitely worth a visit.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Transports at the Pleasance

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.

Transports at Pleasance Theatre

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.

Transports, Pleasance Theatre

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉