On the 19th December 1981, the Penlee lifeboat the ‘Solomon Browne’ was launched with a crew of eight men (including the coxswain), to rescue the crew from a coaster, the ‘Union Star’, which was in danger of foundering on the jagged rocks of the West Cornwall coastline. There were sixteen lives lost that terrible night as the bad weather conditions made the rescue impossible. The Original Theatre Company, in collaboration with writer Frazer Flintham and the author of ‘Penlee – The Loss of a Lifeboat’, Michael Sagar-Fenton, have brought together their skills as theatre makers, with North South who specialise in bringing the stage to the screen. Writer Frazer Flintham had the difficult task of bringing together the historical detail, whilst always considering that the viewer will be seeing this on their TV or computer screen, but the actors/creative team have the constraints of a theatre space.
The production begins with the performers acting as narrator, providing the back story, and introducing the characters who would be at the forefront of the rescue. Pub landlord Charlie Greenough (Tim Treloar) had turned on the village of Mousehole’s Christmas lights and everyone in the village was enjoying a normal evening in the build up to Christmas. At 6.10pm, Trevelyan Richards, coxswain of the Penlee lifeboat, received the call that a coaster, the ‘Union Star’, was drifting with engine failure off the Cornish coast and they were put on standby. This coastline is known as the ‘ships graveyard’, and with its jagged rocks and the heavy storm, the sea was a dangerous place to be.
As the production progresses, the actors evolve from narration, to being central to the action. Pilots, lifeboat crew, coaster captain, lifeguard, the cast had to multi-task in addition to the very quick, multiple scene changes. Before watching this play, it was hard to imagine how they were going to be able to move the action between two boats and to make it feel realistic, but I need not have worried, as I have seen Original Theatre Company perform theatrical miracles before!
The combination of a script that allows for the realism of the story to be the main focus, whilst allowing the film/theatre makers to adapt the storyline into a medium that is suitable to be watched on the small screen; has been achieved very successfully. The fabulous design of the production and costumes (Michael Pavelka), lighting (Jason Taylor) and sound (Dominic Bilkey), accompanied by the projection designer (Ryan Gilmartin) which played such a part in the realism of the scenes at sea, all add to the remarkable finished product.
Cast members – Hubert Burton, Tom Chambers, Robert Duncan, Madeline Knight, Robert Mountford, Susan Penhaligon, Hazel Simmons, and Tim Treloar, did a splendid job. Sometimes swinging quickly between roles, they never ceased to communicate the gravity of the situation that their character’s faced.
Music Director James Findlay gave the play a Cornish feel with his well-chosen folk songs, and Hazel Simmons leads the final song beautifully and with the rest of the cast joining in, it adds poignancy to the end of the performance.
Pulling all of the above together, Alastair Whatley as director, has done wonders in giving the eight heroic lifeboat crew the tribute they deserve. The cast and creative team should be proud of the work that they have done and of this memorial to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Penlee lifeboat disaster.
Note: Due to Covid, the livestream was unable to take place, so this review has been conducted after viewing the rehearsal footage. This has been considered when writing this review.
This show is available to be watched on demand from the 6th to 30th January 2022 – follow this link for booking details – https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions/33/into-the-night-on-demand
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 27th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★