“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
Most people know that during the Second World War, children from large towns in the UK were evacuated to rural areas. Some, however, were sent further afield – to Australia, South Africa, the United States and Canada. This wasn’t without its dangers, as Germany’s ‘U-boats’ patrolled numerous shipping routes, hitting naval and civilian vessels alike… Written by Nicola McCartney and directed by Kate Bannister, Lifeboat tells the true life story of Bess (Claire Bowman) and Beth (Lindsey Scott) – teenage evacuees who are sent to Canada for their safety, but find themselves in greater peril than if they had stayed at home.
Bess lives in Kentish Town, London and has a younger brother Louis. She has dreams of being a movie star and longs to travel to North America. Her favourite movie is The Wizard of Oz and can often be founding saying to herself “There’s no place like home…” Beth, meanwhile lives in Liverpool and has two older brothers who are serving in the Armed Forces. Listening to ‘the wireless’, Beth is taken with being an opera singer… or a nurse. Especially close to her mother, Beth isn’t so keen on leaving ‘Blighty’ to the safety of the New World.
The play jumps back and forth in time between the girls’ time clinging onto their lifeboat, and the events that take place before their exodus. For those familiar with the minutiae of the 1940s, the play is spot on in terms of the cultural references of the time, and the way Received Pronounciation was spoken on ‘the wireless’ and certain strata of society. The lighting and sound design by Tom Kitney and Jack Elliot Barton respectively play a big part in the seamless transition between different scenes and places in time. Karl Swinyard’s set design also deftly conveys the upturned lifeboat and a variety of other locales. Both girls show a versatility in the various parts they play, though Bowman is particularly adept at regional accents and singing.
Asides from the girls’ circumstances, the play looks at the other children who boarded ‘The City of Benares’, many of whom were much younger than the teenagers. Hearing about the specifics of 13th September 1940, there are parallels with the Titanic in terms of the chaos that ensued and the percentage of people who perished…
How does one survive in such a situation, or indeed forget it to live a ‘normal’ life?
Lifeboat strikes a balance between chronicling the concerns of wartime Britain, and tapping into the Blitz spirit that made it possible for those around at the time to carry on. Despite the circumstances of the main characters, the play retains a spirit of optimism that is neither mawkish or misplaced.
© Michael Davis 2018
Lifeboat runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 6th October.