'Lifeboat' marks a poignant note in children's theater

'Lifeboat' marks a poignant note in children's theater
Ashley Smith plays a teen fighting for survival with her friend in "Lifeboat" at the Lovelace theater. (Eoin Carey)

In 1940, during the height of the Battle of Britain, the City of Benares set sail from Liverpool to Canada with some 90 refugee children aboard.

That evacuation, set up by the Children's Overseas Reception Board, was intended to spirit children away from the horrors of the Blitz and land them in safer harbors.


As it turned out, horror was not left far behind. Part of a massive convoy, the Benares was torpedoed in rough weather by a German U-boat, resulting in the death of over half of the more than 400 passengers aboard.

Of the 90 child evacuees, only 13 survived. After that tragedy, the organized evacuation of children by sea transport was largely abandoned.

Playing through this weekend in the Lovelace Studio Theater, located in the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, "Lifeboat" is the final offering in the Annenberg's Theater for Young Audience's season.

Written by Nicola McCartney, it is the true story of two teenage girls who were left clinging to an overturned lifeboat for 19 freezing hours after the Benares disaster.

The play originated almost a decade ago at Scotland's celebrated Catherine Wheels Theatre Company and has toured prolifically since. Company founder Gill Robertson reprises his tautly economical staging in an action-packed, 70-minute show that thrums along at maximum cruising speed.

The real-life heroines in question are Bess Walder (Hannah Donaldson) and Beth Cummings (Ashley Smith). Smith and Donaldson also play the various other characters in McCartney's tightly composed drama, which segues back and forth in time to the girls' lives before the war and the dark evening of their shared ordeal.

In this splendidly designed show, Karen Tennent's multi-layered set ingeniously evokes the various locales. Jeanine Davies' lighting and David Trouton's compositions are also crucial to the ambience.

Although it may strike some as an unlikely offering for a children's theater program, "Lifeboat" is most striking in that it never condescends to its young viewers.

This is history in the raw, a cautionary tale about how life can change in an instant. As young and old drift away to watery death all around them, Beth and Bess urge each other to hang on, even as the likelihood of rescue fades.

But it's not all death and disaster. The play ends on a salutary note, the heartening revelation that Beth and Bess not only survived but also remained friends throughout their long and happy lives. It's a sunny conclusion that gives context to this cathartic tale of youthful courage and sheer grit.



Where: Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Noon and 2:30 p.m. Saturday; 12 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.


Tickets: $25-$35

Info: (310) 746-4000,

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.