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Lifeboat review at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – ‘richly inventive’

Amy McGregor and Lois Mackie in Lifeboat at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Photo: Anthony Robling Amy McGregor and Lois Mackie in Lifeboat at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Photo: Anthony Robling

Blitzed Britain. A ship transporting 90 child evacuees to the safety of Canada is sunk by German U-boats. Most of them drown. Two schoolgirls survive by clinging to a downside-up lifeboat for 19 hours.

On the surface, the stark realism in Nicola McCartney’s play, Lifeboat, based on the catastrophic sinking of SS City of Benares in September 1940, appears to demand a lot from young audiences. It’s hard not to draw parallels with recent images of children fleeing conflict ending up in worse danger.

Yet apart from the anticipated tragedy, McCartney’s writing also takes over-eight-year-olds on a gripping voyage of resilience and friendship, told through the real-life experiences of cockney Bess Walder and Beth Cummings from Liverpool, schoolgirls who we see literally willing each other to stay alive.

Simply staged in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Barber Studio before touring local community venues as part of WYP’s engagement programme, Gill Robertson’s richly inventive production for Scotland’s Catherine Wheels Theatre Company covers the girl’s awfully big near-death adventure in just over an hour. It contains a huge amount of fascinating cultural insights to take in as well about family life on the pre-war home front and children coping with the shock of war.

Lois Mackie, as Bess, and Amy McGregor, as Beth, narrate their story with a sort of gutsy innocence, ranging from their obsession with The Wizard Of Oz and trying on gas masks to conveying the sheer wonder at discovering the unimaginable poshness of the ship that should have taken them to a new life but nearly became their tomb.

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Verdict
Richly inventive and admirably challenging theatre for young people
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