Lifeboat, Brunton Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Catherine Wheels
Nicola McCartney (writer), Gill Robertson (director) Dave Trouton (composer) Karen Tennent (designer), Jeanine Davies (lighting designer), Alison Brown (costume designer), Ros Steen (voice coach), Caroline Doney (scenic artist), Paul Fitzpatrick (producer), Douglas McBride (photo)
Naomi Felton (Bess Walder), Ashley Smith (Beth Cummings)
Running time

Catherine Wheels’ rescuing of a story of two brave young girls’ survival of peril on the sea captures the heart.

In 1940, thanks to the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, a ship carrying young British evacuees set sail from Liverpool heading for the apparently safe shores of Canada. After only four days at sea, the ship was torpedoed and sunk. Of the 90 children on board, only 11 survived and of those were two fifteen-year-olds, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, who spent 19 hours clinging on to an upturned lifeboat in the open sea. Their determination to survive and the strength of their lasting friendship are at the core of Lifeboat.

On an ingenious wooden set of decking and steps crammed with old trunks and valises, the diverse land lives of the two girls are brought to life showing a time before their nautical friendship begins. The orange glow of the ‘not to be touched’ wireless set hums out radio tunes and wartime songs that are sung along with gustily by the girls in their respective homes at either end of England.

This tale is re-imagined with great theatricality and sensitivity by Catherine Wheels while losing none of the story’s poignancy. It is retold as a poetic hymn to survival in all its forms thanks to the rich writing of Nicola McCartney and smart direction of Gail Robertson whose joint passion and determination brought about this memorable production.

The play’s 300th performance took place at the Brunton Theatre with a new cast: Naomi Felton who plays Londoner Bess Walder and Ashley Smith in the role of Liverpudlian Beth Cummings. Each actress brings tremendous versatility and vitality to the multiple voices and roles they portray. Their co-ordination is immaculate from when they hang like lifeless marionettes in their dressing gowns on harnesses suggesting the sway of waves till they are girls being whirled to the roaring sounds of the sea.

There are strong parallels from the get go with The Wizard of Oz not least of which is the refrain from the girls of “There’s no place like home.” The Oz story is intertwined throughout with the metaphor of the unknown and potentially dangerous “Lions and tigers and bears!” as chanted like a mantra by Dorothy in the famous 1939 film and by Bess and Beth in the play.

Dorothy is thrown out of her safe home life by a storm yet survives by being extraordinarily brave. She was fictional but Bess and Beth were real. And it is their very real tenacity and strength of will that saved their lives and makes it a story worth telling. Catherine Wheels have honoured the girls’ bravery by saving this story from of oblivion in such fine form.

The tour is dedicated to Bess Walder who died in 2010. She said, “I hope that all young people who see Lifeboat take away the message ‘don’t let go’ - we can all achieve remarkable things.” Lifeboat is a fine tribute gives a strong message about hanging on and not giving up in spite of life’s storms.

27th September
10am & 7.30pm
Tour continues till November 16th