NZ Arts Festival 2008, Soundings Theatre
Feb 23/28; Mar 1/3/8 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Lifeboat tells the inspirational story of survival of two very different girls after the boat that is evacuating them from Britain in World War II sinks after being torpedoed by the Germans. The play is based on the real life story of Bess Walder and Beth Cummings and the voyage of the boat the City of Benares that departed Liverpool bound for Canada on the 13th of September 1940. It is a tribute to their survival and also to the passengers who lost their lives (248 of the 406 passengers and crew, including 77 of the 90 children on board). The sinking of the boat is an important historical event in the context of WWII, as the operation of the Children’s Overseas Resettlement Board was immediately ceased after it sank. However, in compiling this story, Nicola McCartney has focused on the personal insights of Bess and Beth to offer a unique perspective on both the war and the tragedy.

The play begins with the rushing sound of water. Bess and Beth spin towards the audience, confused and frantic as the boat they are on is sinking. Then we rewind to before the war and learn about the home life of the two girls. Bess is an extroverted girl from a comfortable family in London. She dreams of moving to Canada and becoming a film star. Her biggest irritant is her little brother. Beth is a homebody, who worships her two elder brothers and comes from a working class, solo working mother family in Liverpool. She harbours a desire to be a singer. It seems like the only thing that connects the two girls when events of the war throws them together is a mutual love of the film “The Wizard of Oz”. Indeed, “There’s no place like home” becomes their refrain, reflecting their mutual desire to survive.

The play is pitched more at children and young people, although there is plenty for adults to enjoy. This is a genuinely moving play and it does document another perspective of a tragic event. Both actresses, Suzanne Robertson as Bess and Isabelle Joss as Beth, are fantastic at creating a realistic sense of two young teenage girls and also play the members of each other’s families with skill. Both director, Gil Robertson and designer, Karen Tennent have succeeded in using the set and stage to evoke a number of places, including both girls’ homes, a train, the boat and the Atlantic Ocean in which the two girls cling to a lifeboat refusing to give up.

Whilst the story ends well for Bess and Beth, we are not allowed to forget that it didn’t for so many others. A woman beside me was openly in tears at the end – she was on another boat that made it to it destination. However, the overall message of this sweet show is hopeful and the performace is of an extremely high quality.