Pros: The dramaturgy, the design, the acting.
Cons: I should stop going to see plays that make me emotional.
In July 1940, the imminent German invasion and the continuous bombings of most British cities convinced the Government of the necessity to exile as many children as possible to other Commonwealth countries. For this purpose, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board was established, which saw the registration of over 200,000 youths in the first few months of its existence.
Amongst them, 15 years old Bess Walder from London and 14 years old Beth Cummings from Liverpool set sail for Canada aboard the SS City of Benares, together with 88 other children and 310 adult passengers and crew. Four days into the voyage, during the night of the 17th September 1940, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank within 30 minutes. Only 13 of the 90 children on board survived, with a total of 258 lives being lost. An incident that convinced Winston Churchill to cancel the scheme with immediate effect.
During the evacuation of the City of Benares, many of the lifeboats had experienced problems whilst being released onto the Ocean and, with an Atlantic storm raging, tipped upside down as soon as they touched the water. Clinging on to the ropes of an overturned vessel, Bess and Beth watched the hands of their companions let go one by one, whilst trying to keep each other’s hopes alive. Wearing only their pyjamas and dressing gowns, the two friends’ ordeal lasted for over 19 hours, until they were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Hurricane.
The eerie atmosphere of those interminable hours is strikingly recreated inside the intimate auditorium of the Jack Studio Theatre, with Claire Bowman and Lindsey Scott perfectly embodying the hardship of Bess and Beth respectively. During 70 straight minutes, sound and lighting shift so imperceptibly, and yet so effectively, that I’d swear I could feel the water creeping up my ankles, with the swelling fog and sea roaring in the dark to send shivers down my spine.
These ghastly moments are woven with much warmer memories of the happy times coming up to the disaster – also portrayed with freshness and enthusiasm by the truly formidable duo of performers. Fond scenes of family life, the outbreak of the war and the luxurious first days on board the beautiful steamer are cheerfully depicted on Karl Swinyard’s versatile set.
Playwright Nicola McCartney’s dramaturgy is so intense and well-crafted that, despite the known happy ending, I saw many red-eyed audience members when the lights came up at the end of the play.
Lifeboat is a moving tale of friendship and endurance that is both inspiring and stirring. One more impeccable in-house production for the close-knit team of the Jack Studio Theatre.
Author: Nicola McCartney
Director: Kate Bannister
Designer: Karl Swinyard
Producer: The Jack Studio Theatre
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/london/the-jack-studio-theatre/lifeboat
Booking Until: 6 October 2018