West Yorkshire Playhouse
Tuesday 2 May 2017
Take a powerful (and true) story explored by a strong script, combine this with imaginative physical staging and the result is a piece of truly terrific theatre that is by turns funny, informative, tender, tense and in places heartbreaking. The story of the sinking of the convey ship City of Benares in September 1940, with its complement of 90 children being evacuated to Canada was a particularly tragic low point of World War Two. Nicola McCartney’s 2002 script tells the story of this event and Gill Robertson’s precise and energetic production serves as a fitting tribute and memorial to the 87 children who didn’t survive their ordeal of clinging to lifeboats upturned in the freezing stormy waters of the Atlantic.
Lois Mackie and Amy McGregor portray (amongst others) real life survivors cockney Bess Walder and Liverpudlian Beth Cummings and in doing so energetically conjure up childhood worlds of annoying brothers, Judy Garland, demanding parents, plus dreams of travel and stardom; a world which through radio announcements and sirens descends into wartime uncertainty when to many the only sane and sensible thing to do to protect children from the threat of bombs and invasions was send them to Australia, America, South Africa and Canada. We’re taken with the two girls and their fellow evacuees on a journey of form filling and medicals, planning and packing, partings at noisy railway stations and protracted train journeys before arriving at the 1940 equivalent of the promised land- the SS Benares with its turbaned stewards handing out chocolate and ham rolls in surroundings that are luxurious beyond of their ‘Wizard of Oz’ fuelled dreams. This story is interspersed with tightly choreographed interludes showing the raw peril of their plight as they escaped the torpedoed ship and cling with frozen hands to an upturned lifeboat in a stormy sea watching those around them weaken and let go leaving them alone and leaving Bess to deal with the anguished thought of how to tell their parents she’d lost her brother. Such was the power and conviction of the performances that this reviewer felt her plight right in the solar plexus.
The play was staged in the Barber studio, one of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s lesser-known but more exciting spaces which leant itself really well to the traverse staging and the physicality of the piece. The beauty of this approach was that through the simplest of devices- minimal gestures of fingers, strings of lights flickering on and of, manhandled suitcases- my Ipad-smartphone-sodden mind was fully engaged and prompted to create images of falling wardrobes, sloping decks, and sinking ships more powerful than any actual image or literal representation. The only such literal image came right at the end; a smack to the emotions in the form of a clothes line of children’s clothes printed with a photograph of the faces of the young people as they set sail from Liverpool on their big adventure; the optimism and excitement on their faces providing a sharp reminder of the truth behind the story.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the spell cast by this production came from the audience of children, sat crossed in two rows either side of the performance space, cross-legged, unmoving, immersed and rapt. It must have crossed the mind of more than one of the audience that they were exactly the age of their counterparts on the SS Benares.