In September 1940, a ship carrying evacuee children from Britain to Canada was sunk by a torpedo attack, with the loss of an estimated 258 lives. For nineteen hours, two schoolgirls, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, clung to an overturned lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic, dressed only in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. As the hours passed, they willed each other to hang on, until they were finally rescued and brought home to Britain. Their terrifying ordeal and the friendship and courage that helped them both survive it, are the subject of Nicola McCartney’s two-hander Lifeboat, and under the direction of the consistently brilliant Kate Bannister, they make for an enthralling 70 minutes.
The play covers the hours following the attack, when we find Beth (Lindsey Scott) and Bess (Claire Bowman) floating, alone and terrified, in the freezing Atlantic. But it also flashes back to the months leading up to their departure, and the impact of the war on their lives in Liverpool and London respectively, as well as their four days travelling on The City of Benares, where they’re brought together by a shared love of The Wizard of Oz. There’s a playfulness and humour to these flashbacks – in which Claire Bowman and Lindsey Scott also play all the other characters, from annoying little brothers to the ship’s Indian crew members – that draws us in, and which contrasts sharply with the intensity of the lifeboat scenes placed intermittently throughout the play. The more we know about the two friends’ lives and their dreams for the future, the more we want them to survive.
The Brockley Jack has a well-deserved reputation for its excellent in-house productions. Lifeboat is no exception, rising magnificently to the challenges presented by the play’s structure and themes, and ticking every box in terms of design, direction and performance. Karl Swinyard’s set transforms the small studio space into the deck of the doomed ship, while the sound and lighting design from Jack Elliot Barton and Tom Kitney recreates with stunning accuracy not only the sights and sounds of the 1940s but also the horror of the attack and its aftermath.
Throughout the play, Claire Bowman and Lindsey Scott show their versatility as they slip seamlessly from one character to another. But it’s as the central characters that they’re most compelling – whether they’re cheerfully singing rude songs about Hitler, gazing in awestruck wonder at the cinema screen, giggling over a handsome sailor, or fighting for survival in icy waters. In just 70 minutes we come to know and care about both girls, and as their ordeal continues, we can feel their fear and growing exhaustion.
Although Lifeboat focuses on one specific incident of World War II, it’s difficult to watch it and not think more broadly about the horrors of war, and the millions of innocent lives lost around the world to conflicts past and present. Bess and Beth’s story ends well – the two women would go on to be lifelong friends – and Lifeboat pays tribute to their incredible courage and resilience. But the play’s sombre conclusion also ensures we don’t forget the 258 people, among them 77 children, who weren’t so lucky.
It’s tragic that stories like this one still need to be told, but if they must then it’s at least some comfort to see them told as well as this. A sensitive portrayal of devastating real events, Lifeboat is undoubtedly another triumph for the Brockley Jack team. Go and see it while you can.
Lifeboat is at the Brockley Jack until 6th October.
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