‘Bravura performances and exciting staging’
On one very unlucky Friday the 13th, The City of Benares set sail from Liverpool for Canada. It was September 1940 and the ship had 90 child evacuees on board escaping the Blitz. Four days later, it was torpedoed by the Germans and sunk in the Atlantic. Only eleven evacuees survived.
This is the true story of what happened to two of them. Fifteen-year-olds Bess Walder and Beth Cummings survived the blast that trapped and killed their friends and managed to get to a lifeboat. It upturned and they spent 19 hours in the freezing water, dressed only in their pyjamas and dressing gowns.
This moving 70-minute play works well in the intimate space of the Brockley Jack. The prow of the ship dominates Karl Swinyard’s clever set, with luggage scattered about.
Claire Bowman, as Bess, and Lindsey Scott, as Beth, give bravura and moving performances, never hesitating as they switch from one fast-moving scene to another, telling the girls’ story. They play themselves, their parents, siblings and other children and carers on the ship. They reveal their childhood hopes and dreams before the tragedy that brings them together and changes them forever. Londoner Bess wants to be a Hollywood actress, and Liverpudlian Beth a nurse. They both love the movies. The Wizard of Oz and the poignancy of ‘no place like home’ is a recurring theme as well as the hymn, For Those In Peril On The Sea.
The girls’ singing and dancing, and use of the wireless, takes us effectively into the start of the war years, but the actors’ strongest scenes are in the lifeboat and underwater scenes. Cleverly directed by Kate Bannister, these moments, and movements, make us feel like we are clinging on for life with them in these freezing waters.
Special marks must go to Tom Kitney and Jack Eliot Barton for their stunning light and sound staging respectively.
The captain of the U-boat was charged over the deaths but cleared as he could not have known that children were aboard. There were questions as to why the Navy did not escort the ship all the way, and the sinking led to such public outrage that Winston Churchill cancelled the plan to relocate British children abroad.
A moving, poignant yet uplifting play.
Editor's Note: You can read our interview with the team on re-creating these true life events for the stage here
LIFEBOAT by Nicola McCartney
Presented by the Jack Studio Theatre
Until Saturday 6 October 2018
Kate Pettigrew is a Fleet Street journalist. Her plays have included Brexit, dementia and talking sheep.