An epic survival story based on accounts of victims and survivors of the sinking of the troopship Laconia by a German U-Boat in the mid-Atlantic in 1942. Left adrift, one lifeboat spent 28 excruciating days at sea.
You may associate it with Gracie Fields, but “Now Is the Hour” is adapted from a traditional Maori song. So it’s a masterstroke to have it sung here by a young New Zealander serving as a Royal Navy pilot. When the song is heard in David Walter Hall’s play, it is scarcely possible to hold back a tear.
The year is 1942 and the liner Laconia has been torpedoed in the Atlantic. For 28 days, a band of survivors struggles to stay alive in a lifeboat. They include Peter Medhurst and the married Scot “Catriona” (renamed to conceal her identity), who is carrying his child and to whom, in her final hours, he croons, “soon you’ll be sailing far across the sea”. In mimed, dreamlike flashbacks, we see the emergence of their affair, the ship’s destruction, and the hours of hope and despair.
The idea for the play came from producer Peter Christopherson, who, as Medhurst’s nephew, came into possession of his uncle’s letters. Of the three survivors, it is Doris Hawkins (sensitively played by Catherine Cusack) who frames the story in a letter to Medhurst’s mother.
The acting of the 11-strong company is convincing enough, on a versatile set – a fractured lifeboat on a shiny floor against a marine backcloth. The incident is soon to be dramatised by Alan Bleasdale for BBC television, but it’s unlikely to have half as much heart as this poignant production.
The British Theatre Guide
The Laconia incident during World War 2, where a U-boat torpedoed the liner, is well known, if mainly for the historical repercussions regarding the rescue of survivors it created in its wake. Crossroads Theatre have chosen to focus on one of the lesser known sides to the story, that of the devastatingly sad true story of the men and women who escaped on a lifeboat and became separated from the mass of survivors before the rescue attempts were made by the German navy.
In one of the most interesting ways to stage a play I’ve seen so far this festival, the stage is covered in a shimmering silver surface whilst the cast situate themselves in the segments of a real lifeboat, which is split and re-arranged continually throughout to show both the passage of time and to emphasise the action on-board. The cast are magnificent in the way they tell the harrowing perils of the survivors’ while they begin to starve and perish to the elements. Using simple tricks and stagecraft to show the effects of sunburn and dehydration, the real emotional impact is in the subtleties between the actors in the small movements and looks. More powerful still are the ghosts of the dead cast, returning to claim each further lost soul from the boat, and the gutting moments of delirium and flashback that broke the eerie stillness with poignant reflection that cut close to the heart and encompass so brilliantly the human loss that took place. A truly classic play that deserves to be seen more than once.
Rogues & Vagabonds
CATHERINE CUSACK stars in this heart-rending epic in the tradition of The English Patient and Titanic. NOW IS THE HOUR is the astonishing true story of an affair that threatened the line of modern day Scottish aristocracy – a remarkable, illicit and ultimately tragic WWII romance set on-board the doomed ship, SS Laconia. Set entirely on-board a real lifeboat, visceral and up-close, this claustrophobic tour de force of taut survival drama, tells a story revealed only after the discovery of a remarkable series of letters unearthed 60 years after the death of the young pilot.
Slick, traditional theatre at its best, this is the story of the torpedoed liner the Laconia in WWII, and the survivors escape onto a lifeboat that then floats for weeks on the high Atlantic. The talented cast and wonderful set design bring to life beautifully the sense of time and place.
This is a simple story of survival and most of the action takes place within the lifeboat. The ensemble cast keep our view fresh by moving the boat, which is seperated into several parts, around the stage at different angles; also representing the moving on of time and the drifting in different directions. The sea is effectively portrayed by way of shiny reflective plastic and the sky by painted driftwood like cabinets with old bottles on the shelves. The small stage is filled with a buoyant, energetic cast that know exactly what they are doing by way of excellent direction.
The opening, and a later scene, sees the cast move stylistically around the stage. This is in contrast to the naturalism that comes afterwards but this alteration of style is handled with grace. The acting is highly naturalistic and the makeup impressively realistic. Each actor plays their part with sensitive realism, each facial expression showing their desperation and fear. The script is imperfect however, with lapses into abstraction that don’t fit and are awkwardly delivered by the actors. What was also slightly baffling was the decision to not give several of the characters speaking roles (although these actors, to their credit, were still very present). This may work in a film, but on stage, with naturalistic acting, I wondered why they didn’t talk. As they die one by one they are maneuvered off the boat into the sea and move off stage with a grace that deftly symbolises their passing.
Sound, lighting and other innovative production values like the pouring of water from one jug to the other further add to this highly impressive production. As a piece of historical storytelling this production suceeds on every theatrical level. What diminishes it a little are parts of the script and a gradual dip in tension the more the bodies leave the boat, with the ending drawing to a predictable conclusion. However, this is more than worth seeing for the beautiful set and stagecraft, slick direction and admirable acting.
Reviewed by FLM