REVIEW: Kinder, Smoking Apples (Little Angel Studios)

If there’s one production that we regretted missing out on last year it was Kinder at Little Angel Theatre, which won 2023 Offies awards (Theatre for Young Audience Category) for TYA Music/Sound and TYA Best Production, and was also named Best Production (Theatre for Young Audiences) in the 2023 Etties. Having seen most of the other shows nominated for both sets of awards, we knew that Kinder had tough competition, so were thrilled to discover that it was returning to Little Angel Studios this summer as part of the inaugural Little Angel Theatre’s Children’s Puppet Festival.

Kinder follows Babi and her grandson, Sammy on a train journey across Europe and into the past, as she relives another epic journey that she made in the opposite direction when she was much younger. And from the moment that the audience steps into the cleverly designed set (by Matt Lloyd), we are truly off on a journey with Babi that is moving in more ways than one. Together, we get a glimpse into the experiences of a child refugee sent from Prague to England on the Czech Kindertransport. We share her disorientation as she struggles to understand foreign tongues, we feel her fear as she tries to hide her identity from German soldiers, and we watch her struggle with that identity as she begins a new life in Margate.

It’s a incredibly immersive production that utilises a mixture of storytelling methods to bring us into Babi’s world, with the incredible box set allowing that world to emerge all around us. The audience are fully involved in the action; indeed the action cannot begin until someone in the room presses a button to set us off on our journey. And we remain involved throughout with children (and the occasional adult) called upon to take part.

Whether you enjoy audience participation or not, the point is to take you out of your comfort zone, so audience members are not necessarily selected on the basis that they look like willing participants. Like Babi, we are on this journey and we do what we are told. And, as children of the Kindertransport, we find it quite difficult to understand what is going on for much of the journey because most of the text is not in English.

In fact, even when we get to England, the first voices we hear are in a strange, broken English, exactly as it might be heard by a child who does not speak the language. It’s such a brilliant way of really allowing the audience to step into Babi’s shoes, and imagine how scared and confused she must have been even when she finally reached the safety of our shores. Then as time goes on, and Babi starts to learn the language, the people around her start to speak in clearer English, and we see her start to develop a sense of security.

Babi and her Grandson, Samm. Image credit: David Bartholomew.

As you would expect at Little Angel, the production includes some absolutely beautiful table-top puppetry and shadow puppetry (designed by Matt Lloyd and Hattie Thomas, who also co-devised the production and puppeteers Babi). George Bellamy’s sound design is evocative, particularly when it comes to revealing the horrors of the Holocaust, which the show does not shy away from despite the young audience it is aimed at. We hear the sounds of Kristallnacht and the voices of survivors who share their own stories. We learn about the fates of Babi’s family, and many others like them, and we understand why she has left it so long to make the return journey to her home town.

It’s a powerful production and not easy to watch in places, although it is peppered with lighter moments to offset the darkness, particularly in the interactions with children (including an encounter with an enthusiastic sausage dog called Klaus and a chance to bake a rather unusual cake with Babi). Although recommended for ages 9+ it is absolutely compelling viewing for anyone mature enough to deal with the sensitive themes, whether they are 9 or 99. When we attended, almost the entire audience seemed to be made up of adults, with just a couple of children in the room (including Crotchet, who rarely sees children’s theatre with me anymore because she thinks she’s too old for it, so this was an excellent opportunity to remind her of just how amazing it can be).

Shadow puppetry from Kinder. Image credit: David Bartholomew

While some of the above may make it sound like this production might not suit neurodivergent audience members, Smoking Apples actually have designed the production to be as accessible as possible. There are fidget toys provided at the door and audience members are allowed to leave and re-enter (with a chill-out zone provided for regulation). You can also download a brilliant inclusive resource pack which includes a social story to help you familiarise yourself with the production, and details of when you may encounter sudden loud noises. We would also suggest that you avoid sitting in the front row or on the edges of the seating area if you prefer not to engage in audience participation.

For anyone who might be in doubt that children’s theatre has the power to make you think and feel (and cry!) just as deeply as any show aimed at adults, Kinder is a must see. And, of course, it’s also unmissable for anyone who was fully aware that theatre for young audiences can do all of those things. Fittingly for a production that deals with a historical event that humankind should never be allowed to forget, it’s undoubtedly a show that will live long in the memory.

Kinder played at Little Angel Studios from 29 August to 3 September 2023. We received complimentary press tickets to the morning performance on 3 September.

Age recommendation: 9+

Image credit: David Bartholomew