Story of Britain's Oskar Schindler told with puppets

KinderSmoking ApplesPromo Shoot©The Other Richard

Kinder by Smoking Apples premieres at Little Angel Theatre Islington from May 11-14 - Credit: The Other Richard

The tale of a Hampstead stockbroker, who helped to rescue 669 Czech children from Nazi persecution, has inspired books, documentaries, and soon a major film starring Anthony Hopkins.

But before that, audiences can see Nicholas Winton's story told with puppets at Islington's Little Angel Theatre.

Molly Freeman directs Kinder which uses puppetry and verbatim testimony from Kindertransport survivors to explore the events of 1939, and their aftermath.

"The Kindertransport is an incredible narrative and we were particularly interested in the Czech aspect because a few of us have lived in Prague," said Freeman, who is co-founder of Smoking Apples.

"It seemed a good fit to make a compelling narrative centred around this British man Nicholas Winton and our character Babby, who is not based on an individual but is a personification of many. Our action is based on real testimony, peppered throughout the show. We want people to feel moved, but also to make sure everyone remembers this really did happen."

Although baptised Anglican, Winton was born in West Hampstead in 1909 to parents of German-Jewish heritage. In December 1938, he visited Prague where he saw thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany's antisemitic policies. Transports were already being organised for German and Austrian children, but he realised Czech children also needed help and lobbied to bring them to Britain.

Sir Nicholas Winton with his "children" Vera Gissing and Vera Schaufeld. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Sir Nicholas Winton with two of the "children" he helped to rescue Vera Gissing and Vera Schaufeld. - Credit: Nigel Sutton

From his flat in Willow Road, Hampstead, Winton set about arranging host families, raising funds to cover travel expenses, and the £50 guarantee for each child. Six trains arrived at Liverpool Street. Heartbreakingly, a further 250 children were due to leave Prague the day war broke out.

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Kinder shows Babby as an old woman, returning to Prague with her grandson, before jumping back to see her aged nine bidding farewell to her father.

KinderSmoking Apples

Kinder Smoking Apples - Credit: The Other Richard

"Puppetry offers brilliant flexibility in terms of quickly time popping in quite a filmic way," says Freeman. "The goodbye from her dad is powerful and moving. We chart her emotions from her perspective, the moment is rapid and confusing. Because of the effort it takes to make a puppet do something, puppetry also has this fascinating ability to magnify an action and make an audience concentrate on it." 

Winton, who will be played by Hopkins in the biopic One Life, lived to 106. He always played down his efforts which only became known when his wife discovered a scrapbook of documents in the attic in 1988, and he appeared on That's Life, hosted by former Hampstead resident Esther Rantzen.

Sir Nicholas Winton with Esther Rantzen. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Sir Nicholas Winton in 2004 with Hampstead resident Esther Rantzen, whose 1988 programme That's Life brought his wartime deeds to public attention - Credit: Nigel Sutton

"Kinder centres around the idea of taking action, not being passive, and acts of kindness from strangers," says Freeman.

 "Winton is the personification of the act of kindness. One decision had a domino effect that saved so many people's lives, not just to escape persecution, but to put them to places where they could feel safe.

"He's the catalyst, but it didn't end with him. There are other acts of kindness Babby encounters on her journey – people from different backgrounds that you may not expect to be kind to her look after her."

The moment when Rantzen asks audience members to stand up if they owe their life to Nicholas Winton is a "very special" evocation of the repercussions of kindness.

"I've watched it several times and the look on his face is incredible as he realises everyone is there because of him. Seeing all those people together is a visual representation of the power of multiple voices and the effect one person can have."

Babby finds a "loving, supportive" home in Margate and only later in life discovers what befell her parents.

"Babby's journey reflects the narrative of many Jewish people who didn't know what happened to their relatives for a very long time. Many made the decision to park it and get on with life, but when she's older, Babby starts to think about it again and there's devastation but also the relief of knowing."

Aimed at 11-15 -year-olds, she hopes Kinder will resonate with a teenage audience.

"Young people that age are neither kids nor grown ups but get asked to make big, profound decisions about their lives which can be overwhelming. Babby struggles with her identity, thinking about who she is and wants to be, and Sammy the grandson also tries to understand what happened to her and how that relates to his identity."

Kinder
Smoking Apples
Promo Shoot
©The Other Richard

Kinder Smoking Apples - Credit: The Other Richard

Although it's not overstated, Kinder carries contemporary echoes.

"As we see another mass movement of people across Europe, we can look at it through our current lens of the war in Ukraine and think how can we help?

"It could be any war but we really focus on how the humanity of the people around us is what unites us when war divides us."

Kinder runs May 11-14 at Little Angel Studio Islington. Visit www.littleangeltheatre.com/whats-on/kinder/