Two vertical railway tracks dominate the stage space. They form the perfect metaphor for the narrative of Transports, from Cornish group Pipeline Theatre. After all, this is a play about parallels.
Unlike the tracks, though, the play’s two stories are cleverly merged. Dinah (Hannah Stephens), a teenager in the late 1970s, arrives in a small East Anglian town to meet her new foster mother, the eccentric Lotte (Juliet Welch). Stephens also plays the young Lotte, a Jewish German Kindertransport who arrived in England during WWII. The two stories intertwine, exploring themes of integration and motherhood.
The actual narrative is somewhat predictable. Lotte is the charming and endearing elderly woman, fussing over her home, forever losing a pack of mints in her handbag. Dinah is the sulky teen who, without family guidance, has given up on her life before it’s even begun. “Just because bad things happened to you, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person”, says the older woman, who somehow manages to see the good in all. And where Lotte survived the events of the war, Dinah wages her own war in the school playground – one that’s tragically self-perpetuated.
There’s a third character, though: the sound design. Far from mere atmospherics, action that occurs off-stage is represented brilliantly through sound – from chugging trains and opening doors, to the bustle of whispering schoolchildren and their threatening remarks. Visual projections flicker freely over the solid timber, adding to the cinematic feel that adds grandeur to the production beyond its simple two character set-up.
Further, the story of Lotte is based upon the life of designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl, who we finally witness in video form at the play’s end. It adds a welcome dose of reality, not only in emphasising the stark, grim truth of the past, but in the play’s relevance to today. WWII was far from the last refugee crisis faced by Europe, and the play’s theme of integration remains a massive and prevalent issue.
Beneath all that, though, is a beautifully told and affecting story of two women whose lives collide, revealing more commonality than even they knew. Stephens and Welch are both lovable in their own ways – the benevolent older lady and the tough yet vulnerable teen. The narrative may be predictable, but as those railway tracks suggest, the tragedy of their lives is inevitable.
Watch: Transports is currently touring around the UK, visit the website for details.