“What is good about the play is that it doesn’t give any easy answers. It’s has got a real psychological truth about it and that’s always very satisfying" - Jenny Lee Talks KINDERTRANSPORT

Jenny Lee & Leila Schaus in KINDERTRANSPORT

Jenny Lee & Leila Schaus in KINDERTRANSPORT. Photo Credit Mark Sepple

Jenny Lee talks to Frankly My Dear UK about her role as Lil Miller in KINDERTRANSPORT and why Diane Samuels’ play feels as timely as ever

Mention the words ‘war’ and ‘evacuation’ and most people think about the 1939 British evacuation which saw 1.5 million children evacuated to the countryside to escape the threat of war. But just a year before, 10,000 Jewish children were evacuated from Austria and Germany to England as part of a unique humanitarian programme set up by the British government known as Kindertransport – the inspiration behind Diane Samuels’ critically acclaimed play of the same name which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Inspired by real-life stories from Kindertransport survivors, Samuels’ play tells the story of nine-year-old Eva who is forced onto a train bound for the UK by her parents Helga and Werner Schlesinger in order to escape the threat of World War II. Arriving in London, speaking no English and feeling very much abandoned, Eva is taken under the wing of Lil Miller, who fosters her during the conflict.

“The play jumps between 1938 and 1980” explains Jenny Lee, who plays Lil in the new revival produced by Selladoor Worldwide which runs at Manchester’s Opera House this week.

“When Eva comes to England, she’s met by Lil – the character I play – who is going to look after her until her parents come over.”

“Then we jump to 1980 and Eva, who is now in her 50s, has called herself Evelyn. She thought her parents were dead because there were so many newsreels about the concentration camps and so she’s adopted by Mr and Mrs Miller and she changes her name.”

In an attempt to escape her past, Evelyn keeps her background secret from her daughter Faith, who is now 22 and is preparing to leave home for the first time. But when Faith discovers a box of papers in the attic uncovering her mother’s past, Evelyn is forced to confront her demons and face up to the previous life she tried to leave behind.

Starring alongside Suzan Sylvester as Evelyn and Hannah Bristow as Faith, Lee takes on the role of Lil Miller, a working-class woman from Manchester who offers to temporarily foster Eva/Evelyn until her parents come over to England.

“I like Lil so much. I really like her as a character, I think she’s terribly well drawn and she’s got a big heart” explains Lee.

“She’s very straight so when Evelyn starts chucking stuff at her because she’s so upset, she doesn’t take it. She’s strong but she gets hurt. She sees things clearly and what she wants most is for Evelyn and Faith to be OK together. She knows the vulnerability of Evelyn but she also believes Faith should know the truth. She’s trying to make sure that there is a reconciliation between them – that Faith gets what she needs and Evelyn survives OK”

Lee admits that whilst she was aware of the Kindertransport programme, she didn’t know how many children had actually been affected until she started working on the play.

“I knew about Kindertransport but I didn’t realise 10,000 children came over” explains Lee.

“Manchester was one of the big places where people took them. There is a lot of people in Manchester still – I mean they’ll be in their 90s now – who are descendants. Some of them went, of course, to Jewish families but there weren’t enough Jewish families to take all these kids. The families taking them in thought that their parents would be able to come over because this was before the war remember. They had to have jobs and permits but then the war breaks out and that stops it all.”

Lee explains that during their tour, the cast of KINDERTRANSPORT has met some real-life Kindertransport survivors and their children to chat to them about their experience.

“There is now a Kindertransport society and we met on this tour a very feisty lady who came over from the Kindertransport. She’s great, she’s still a hairdresser and she’s tiny. She said her parents were gassed in a very matter of fact way but to her, it was a long time ago. She’s created a life for herself here and everything.”

Yet while 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of Kindertransport, Lee believes the story will resonate with modern audiences more than ever because of the current political climate in places like Syria where suspected chemical attacks are taking place and refugees are fleeing their homelands.

“I think it highlights how difficult it is for the refugees now. It’s far more precarious now and I really feel for them” says Lee.

“When you look at this play and the trauma that Eva goes through, it’s ten times worse for the kids now, it really is. I wish our Government were taking more notice. Lord Alf Dubs is trying. He was someone who came over with Kindertransport himself and that is why he’s pushing for Syrian kids to be allowed in. So there’s a kind of resonance.”

Lee admits, however, that like the play, there are no easy answers, and while many of us cannot begin to understand the horror of war, we all have our own demons to deal with.

“We’ve all got our ‘Ratcatcher’ if you like, that area that we’re worried about in life, that abyss or Bogeyman” explains Lee.

“What is good about the play is that it doesn’t give any easy answers. It’s has got a real psychological truth about it and that’s always very satisfying.”

KINDERTRANSPORT runs at the Opera House, Manchester until 5 May 2018.