Scottish playwright Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat is a gorgeous play for two female actors, based on the true story of the WWII torpedoing of a ship carrying children who were evacuating Britain. Two girls, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, spent 19 hours clinging to an upturned lifeboat, willing each other to survive. Of more than 90 children, only 11 survived including Bess and Beth.
It’s an incredible story and McCartney has written it to be accessible to children and young audiences, but it would be just as moving for adult audiences.
Between them, the two actors play an array of characters, including the girls’ parents, teachers and friends, giving an intimate picture of life in Britain in WWII and, of course, of hanging onto a lifeboat in the freezing ocean.
BESS: Waves are dark, icy, angry – bump – the boat keeps
BETH: Bang – rocking me
BESS: Thump Throwing me up side bump side down.
BETH: Need to keep my
BESS: Head out of the water
BETH: It – smack hurts…
BESS: Glasses, must keep hold of my –
BETH: Mum…I want my mum.
BESS: Can’t see anything without my glasses… Look!
BETH: Hanging on…
BESS: Hanging on…Other hands. Grown up hands hanging on too.
BETH: Mr Leather gloves.
BESS: Mrs Jewelled hands
BETH: Mr Gold watch
One by one the adult hands let go and sink, until it’s just Bess and Beth, clinging to the same rope, facing each other and telling each other to keep going.
The respite for the audience comes in all the humour as they re-enact their stories, showing how they came to be on the boat.
BESS: The air raid shelter’s underneath the school down our road. It’s… packed… bodies everywhere… You all have to jam in together – mums and dads and children and babies and grannies and grandpas and neighbours and.dogs and – hey wait! Get that dog out of here…! Sometimes we have to sleep down here all night until the All Clear sounds.
BETH: What’s nice is that you feel safe… You know it’s dangerous but you go to sleep with all the adults around you, talking, whispering, singing …in the dark. [The people in the shelter start singing.]
BESS: And in the morning when the all clear sounds, I can go out and collect souvenirs – shrapnel.
BETH: I’ve got two bits of German bomber tail fin and six empty bullet cartridges! My mum says:
BETH’S MUM: Ladies do not collect bits of old scrap metal… [Inspecting.] Oh, that looks interesting, where did you find that?
Lifeboat has been performed internationally to great acclaim and will be published later this year.