Janet Dibley tells Francine Wolfisz about her role in the play Kindertransport, based on the rescue mission 75 years ago.
“Thank God you only have to think about those things when they happen – and that we live in times when we are not forced to,” reflects Janet Dibley solemnly.
Kindertransport draws on the real-life evacuation, which this year will mark its 75th anniversary.
The 55-year-old, who starred in EastEnders and Doctors, is currently touring the UK with a production of Kindertransport, the subject of which she confesses to knowing “absolutely nothing” about before taking on the role.
Diane Samuels’ poignant work explores the trauma, confusion and isolation of a Kindertransport child, both during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. It draws on the real-life evacuation, which this year will mark its 75th anniversary, of nearly 10,000 Jewish youngsters from Germany and Austria to the UK.
Dibley, who first came to public attention playing opposite Nicholas Lyndhurst in ITV’s The Two of Us, plays Evelyn, who has struggled to come to terms with leaving her parents while just a child and who must now reluctantly prepare for her own grown-up daughter to leave home.
She appears alongside Paula Wilcox, who plays Evelyn’s adoptive mother, Lil. Despite having scant knowledge of the Kindertransport, Dibley felt “a huge resonance” with the role after reading the script, largely because of the wartime stories her own mother, Marianne Ticheler, shared with her. “She was Dutch and in Germany during the occupation. She was not Jewish, but she had that terrible feeling of being fearful. She would tell us about friends and neighbours who would just suddenly disappear.”
“As one of 10 children, she remembers it was a frightening time for them all. So there has been a huge resonance for me and I’ve discovered a lot about the Kindertransport through doing this play. It’s been a fascinating learning curve.”
Dibley recognises why her character is unable to speak about the past, because her own father-in-law (actor Peter Butterworth) was the same. “He served during the war and never talked about it. The memories were too painful. He didn’t bring it up and just got on with life. You have to respect whatever people have to do to get through and, as this play highlights, understand why they make certain decisions, no matter how painful they are.”
Before embarking on her role, Dibley met several Kinder to hear their experiences first-hand. “One woman’s story had a real impact on me,” she reveals. “I was amazed by her honesty, how calm she was and how she had control of her life today, although she said it took her a long time.”
“The feeling of anger she had towards her parents was extraordinary, but she came to understand she wasn’t really angry at them, more the situation she had been placed into. What was tragic was that her parents actually survived, but they couldn’t talk about the past and she found it incredibly difficult to connect with them. “Her own relationship with her daughter was fantastic, however, and it showed me that there could be a promising end to situations like this, that things do eventually recover.”
As a mother herself of two boys, Todd and Bob, Dibley confesses there are many moments in the play that are particularly poignant. “As soon as you have children, you are connected forever, but there also comes a time when you have to part from them and let them go – or in this instance, you are forced to,” she says. “Every time I’m on stage I think about that – what would I do? In many ways it’s made me appreciate my own children more, and to make the most of what I have.”
• Kindertransport runs from Monday, 3 February, to Saturday, 8 February, 7.30pm, at Richmond Theatre. Matinee performance on Wednesday, 5 February, 2.30pm. Tickets: www.atgtickets.com or www.kindertransport.co.uk