Review: Lifeboat at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

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.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

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.

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Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…

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Review: Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at The Cruising Association, Limehouse

Before last night, my only knowledge of the boating world came from a long ago family holiday on the Norfolk Broads (and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t really learn a huge amount from that). Worse, I knew nothing at all about the Women’s Training Scheme or the so-called Idle Women, who left their comfortable homes and stepped up to take charge of the working boats during World War II. And I have a feeling I may not be the only one.

Fortunately, Alarum Theatre are setting out to change that. They’re embarking on a tour with their historic boat, Tench, and an all-female crew to mark the 75th anniversary of the Idle Women by recreating their route from London to Birmingham and back via Coventry, performing at waterside venues along the way.

The double bill consists of two solo performances by writer and storyteller Kate Saffin and poet and singer-songwriter Heather Wastie, who met on Twitter in 2016 and realised their two shows went rather well together. The first, Isobel’s War, is a fictional and often very funny depiction of the arduous training scheme through the eyes of one of the recruits, while Idle Women and Judies is a collection of poems and songs inspired by, and often directly quoting, the words of the women themselves. Both give us an insight into the hard work and less than comfortable living conditions on board – but also the friendships and sense of accomplishment that the women shared.

Though not exactly your typical night at the theatre, together the two pieces make for a simple, charming and informative evening. And though the performances are quite different in format, they have one important thing in common, and that’s the obvious affection and admiration not just for the Idle Women, but for all the women from boating families who’d been quietly doing the same work for generations before the war. The enthusiasm of both ladies, who come from boating backgrounds themselves, is infectious; even someone as averse to audience participation as I am couldn’t resist joining in with the final chorus (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so catchy – it’s a difficult one to forget once you’ve learnt it).

If you don’t already know the story of the Idle Women, Alarum’s show is a fascinating introduction. If you do, it’s an enjoyable retelling and great entertainment. But it’s also a powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war – and let’s face it, nothing brightens a gloomy Monday like a bit of girl power.

But if it was such hard work on the boats, why were they called the Idle Women? You may well ask – but I’m not the one to answer. You’ll have to see the show to find out…

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Review: The Doppel Gang at Tristan Bates Theatre

The Doppel Gang by Dominic Hedges introduces us to four mediocre performers attempting to save their cash-strapped theatre. After stumbling rather inexplicably on a stash of unproduced Marx Brothers material, they decide to try and pull off the ultimate con, impersonating the rising American stars in front of a London audience desperate to escape the horrors of the Blitz. Can they pull it off and make their escape with the cash, or will they be caught out?

It’s a fun idea, and the cast certainly seem to be enjoying themselves from the outset. The play opens with a Fawlty Towers-esque sketch scene, in which frustrated theatre owner Lombard has to deal with an incompetent workman up a ladder. Though it has little if anything to do with the rest of the story, it’s a well-fashioned salute to British humour, and sets up a nice contrast with the all-American comedy that dominates Act 2.

Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve
Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve

In fact, The Doppel Gang, directed by Terence Mann, takes great pleasure in lining up British and U.S. comedy alongside each other, and it makes the play very much one of two halves; Act 2 consists almost entirely of the group’s Marx Brothers act, whereas before the interval the focus is on establishing the characters and their often fractious relationships. Cyril (Jordan Moore) and Tommy (Peter Stone) can’t stand Lombard (Jake Urry), who they know full well is just using them for his own ends. And male impersonator Rachel (Rachel Hartley) is getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect she gets from the audience or her fellow performers – including her boyfriend Tommy.

The four characters’ constant sniping, and especially Rachel’s feisty disdain for the men she has to deal with, provided for me the funniest moments – although there are plenty of laughs to be found elsewhere too, especially for fans of the Marx Brothers. The cast’s enthusiasm for their subject is obvious, although not being an expert, I’ll leave it to those who know to judge the accuracy of their tribute act. And as the Brits, the four are just likeable and optimistic enough for us to overlook their conscription-dodging ways and wish them success.

There’s a subplot to all this, of course, in the threat of war that hangs over them all, and in the revelation of a secret that places one of the characters at even greater risk. The abrupt, subdued ending, coming so swiftly after half an hour of zany merriment, brings us back to earth with a bump, and out into the cold feeling slightly wrongfooted.

Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve
Photo credit: Mitchell Reeve

The set is really impressive for such a small space, with individual components – including a mobile proscenium arch – manoeuvred smoothly into position to take us on stage, off stage and on one occasion, underground. This gives the impression the stage is a lot bigger than it is, an idea backed up by Mitchell Reeve’s sound design, which recreates both the rumblings of war outside and the theatrical acoustics inside.

It’s a risky enterprise to make a comedy, because finding an approach everyone likes is practically impossible, but Just Some Theatre cover a couple of bases with The Doppel Gang, and do it well. I do feel that to fully appreciate this particular play you need to know and enjoy the Marx Brothers’ work (I was slightly in the dark at times during Act 2, if I’m totally honest), but nonetheless this is clearly a talented company with exciting times ahead.

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