Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 6 October 2018
On 17 September 1940, the City of Benares was targeted by a German submarine and torpedoed. The explosion ripped the ship apart, in the middle of a storm, and she sank within half an hour. At the time it was the worst maritime disaster of WWII, with over 250 lives lost, including most of the 90 evacuee children on their way to Canada from Liverpool.
It sounds utterly traumatic. Youngsters were killed instantly, burned to death, or trapped, screaming in their cabins, crying for their parents and their lives, before drowning in the freezing sea. Just 11 made it to safety, including teenagers Beth Cummings and Bess Walder.
But one can only really imagine the horror, noise, sights, smells the survivors witnessed, and the trauma they suffered. Because Lifeboat, which has just opened at the Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley is an extremely sanitised U-certificate version of events. Director Kate Bannister expertly zips us through in 70 minutes, seamlessly guiding dual narratives through multiple timelines.
As a snapshot into a little bit of our history, when the Children’s Overseas Reception Board endeavoured to save children by relocating them overseas, the early scenes are engrossing. Through Claire Bowman’s posher, starry-eyed, southerner Bess and Lindsey Scott’s northern, working-class Beth, we get a look at the wartime family experience across geography and class.
It’s a theme that could be really engaging in kickstarting discussion for a GCSE history group. The cast and creative team do a fantastic job with the material they’ve got to work with. Bowman and Scott play every minor character too, including their mothers, fathers and brothers, a teacher, a Scottish officer, and an Indian ship steward.
And there are lots of very funny moments in the scenes leading up to the disaster. Fast-paced accent switching works superbly and humorously as the actors change from one character to another.
Karl Swinyard’s set, with its old wireless, stacked suitcases and strings of lights, is lovely to look at and cleverly used, while a stormy ocean is created through atmospheric light and sound by Tom Kitney and Jack Elliot Barton.
Both are well done and nicely enhanced by a slight chill from the theatre’s air-con, but the audio-visual effects are not quite loud or dramatic enough to make me feel immersed in gale-force winds in the middle of a perilous crashing sea.
Unfortunately, I was left cold by a script which is distinctly lacking in any sense of horror or suspense.
It’s as if a quick dip in the ocean was all part of the wartime japes seen earlier in the play, when the girls messed around with gas masks, were thrilled by air raids, and charmingly sang popular ditties.
I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, willing them to survive but in the absence of any tension in the writing to imply they were genuinely at risk (a return of the Nazi submarine! Hypothermia! Sharks?!) I simply wasn’t.
Lifeboat relies heavily on narration, and is told from the perspective of two 14-15 year-old girls who appear considerably younger than today’s mid-teens.
That’s probably pretty accurate for the time period and both the actors age-down brilliantly, never veering into grating childishness.
But it does mean that the language throughout is rather simple, lacking depth and sophistication, and you never really get a sense of what the characters are feeling.
We touch on the girls’ imaginations earlier in the play when they click (literally, their heels) over a love of the Wizard of Oz, or make up silly names for their fellow passengers.
I wish we could have got a little deeper into their heads as they willed themselves and each other to survive.
Their later conversation veers into the weirdly unrealistic.
As the adult Bess and Beth look back on what happened that night they laugh and reminisce about the other kids on board but no thought is really given, or tears shed, for the horrifying way the tiny children perished.
Memories of an unimaginable tragedy are written like they’re recalling a fun playground game.
Eight decades on we still live in a world where people fleeing desperate situations are dying in their hundreds at sea on a startlingly regular basis.
This is a play that has the potential to say a lot about the human capacity for survival in life or death situations, and the extremes we can endure when faced with losing the ones we love.
It’s well acted, classily produced, but misses the boat thanks to simplistic and patchy writing.
Lifeboat runs at the Brockley Jack until October 6.
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