New website for Now is the Hour

Finishing touches and final licks of paint are being applied to the all new website for my play Now is the Hour. This is a site aimed at professional, amateur and student theatre companies, so they can find out a little more about the play, download the script, and hopefully make plans to put on a production of their own, following the great success we had at the Maddermarket last year. If you’re interested, please get in touch via production@nowisthehour.co.uk.

Here she is: www.nowisthehour.co.uk

Click to view the site

Now Is The Hour music

I noticed this up on SoundCloud today. I think our producer is just using it to send the music over from Farnham, Surrey to Norwich, where the play is taking shape I expect. (I’m out of the loop, but never mind.) Still, if you’re interested, here is all the incidental music to the play Now Is The Hour, soon to be arriving at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich from 19th – 28th September.

The original tracks are by Spesh Maloney, with a few in there by George Lewis and Charlie Haden’s Quartet West.

The Sinking of the Laconia

A couple of years ago now, Lynne Walker wrote in the Independent about my play Now Is The Hour:

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.

That day has finally come, and this Thursday the BBC is going to be showing the first part of Bleasdale’s drama about the sinking.

I’ll be watching, hoping that the reviewer’s prophesy comes true, and no doubt envying the budget, with which they’re presumably going to recreate the sinking of a liner as well as the surfacing of a U-Boat, while we were once quite content with “a fractured lifeboat on a shiny floor against a marine backcloth.”

NITH 2.0 first draft completed

NITH in Edinburgh 2008
For the past five months I’ve been working on an extended version of my play Now Is The Hour, originally produced at the Edinburgh fringe in 2008. It seems like a very long time to have been spending on it. By most standards I think it is.

I finished the first draft at the weekend, and emailed it off to the show’s original producer (and got paid instantly – thanks Peter). I had originally promised to get it to him in January.

The play now has two acts and a cast of 12 playing 20 speaking parts and a few more besides, and will run for about two and a half hours plus an interval.

The original version told the story of some of the people who found themselved marooned in a lifeboat following the sinking of the Laconia in 1942. The play began with the torpedo striking and the abandon ship, and ended when the few survivors sighted land. The new version keeps much of the original text, but adds a first act set mostly on board the Laconia while on its final voyage.

It’s a very neat separation (which wasn’t my idea), and means, in broad terms, that the audience will hopefully have a far greater emotional engagement in the lives of the characters whenever the second act comes and they are thrust into crisis.

It’s also meant that I’ve had to invent a lot more of the story: some very detailed accounts of the lifeboat journey have been written by the survivors; not much has been written about what happened on ship (other than eating, drinking, fighting and dysentery – all of which feature in the new script).

I don’t have enough distance from it yet to know how I feel about the new work, but I have a feeling that it’s a huge development on the original, which I have always been immensely satisfied with.

Once it’s been redrafted a few times and everyone’s happy with it, the next step will be to find a producer or production company and a theatre for it. It won’t necessarily be easy, as it’s not going to be a cheap production, but I’m confident.

Hopefully it will find a home somehow, and we will be able to have as many of the amazing original cast back together as possible.

Watch this space…

Now is the Hour – Fringe Review review

★★★★

Low Down

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.

Review

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

Now is the Hour – Rogues and Vagabonds review

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.

Now is the Hour – British Theatre Guide review

★★★★★

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.

Graeme Strachan

An Officer and a Gentleman’s Wife

Originally published in the Scotsman. Original article here.

The true story of a naval officer’s doomed wartime love affair with a married Scots aristocrat is being kept alive at the Fringe, discovers Roger Cox

ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1942, a 22-year-old Royal Navy Air Arm officer called Peter Medhurst wrote a letter home to his mother in New Zealand. It ended with a prophetic sign-off: “Just to say that (she] and I are frightfully happy together and if we do get sunk we’ll be together so what the hell.”

The woman Medhurst was referring to was a prominent Scottish aristocrat – married with children. The pair had fallen in love the previous year, and she was now four months pregnant with his child. Both of them were destined to die at sea just days after he posted this final missive, following the sinking of the Cunard White Star liner the Laconia by a German U-boat.

The story of their affair would almost certainly have died with them had it not been for some diligent detective work by Medhurst’s nephew, theatre producer Peter Christopherson, who uncovered his uncle’s last letter (along with 129 others) following the death of his grandmother in 2006.

Gradually, by reading between the lines of this wartime correspondence and tracking down first-hand accounts from those who survived the Laconia sinking, Christopherson was able to piece together the final days of these two doomed lovers, and their story is now the subject of a powerful new play by David Walter Hall at Edinburgh’s Hill Street Theatre.

Out of respect for the dead woman’s two sons, both of whom are still alive, Christopherson has opted not to name her in the play. He has been in contact with them, however. “I managed to get in touch with the younger one,” he says. “He’s just over 70. He was very sceptical at first, but I told him that I had letters, photos, the whole scoop. No-one in the family knew about the love affair, the pregnancy. In their eyes she was a complete saint. He then told his older brother, who wanted to sue us and close us down and all sorts of things, but the younger brother said, ‘No, you can’t.’

“I met the younger brother – I came up to Scotland and had lunch with him. I said we’d change his mother’s name and that we’d change the references to her father’s title, but we wanted to tell the story. I gave him a copy of the script to read and he came back with some useful comments – things like, ‘She would never have said that.’ Then I backed off, so I have no idea if they’re coming to see the play.”

At one point during our interview, Christopherson is showing me one of his uncle’s letters, written in beautiful, neat handwriting on Cunard White Star headed notepaper, when he realises the name of the girl’s family is clearly visible. But he is right not to publicly identify them: the story is just as remarkable whether you know the woman’s identity or not. In the play – titled Now is the Hour, after the famous wartime song – she is referred to simply as “Catriona”.

Catriona and Peter Medhurst met in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. He was a pilot, and evidently a very good one, as he was charged with flying Churchill around during one of his visits to the region. She was the wife of a senior officer in the British Army and, at 27, some five years Medhurst’s senior.

It is clear from his candid letters to his mother that Medhurst had fallen helplessly in love. In one, when Catriona enters the room, he writes: “Heaven has just walked in.”

“He would do things like borrow a plane and fly her down to Nairobi or over to Palestine for the weekend,” says Christopherson. “In one of the letters he took the husband as well and they all played golf together. He said it’s very strange having this mnage trois with someone who doesn’t realise.”

But the good times were not to last. By June 1942, German tank divisions commanded by Rommel had advanced beyond Torbruck and were rolling swiftly towards Alexandria. Preparations were made to evacuate civilians. As an airman, Medhurst could have caught a flight out of danger, but he had sworn to take Catriona to safety, so the pair embarked on the Laconia, which had been requisitioned as a troop ship.

As the Mediterranean was under Axis control, the ship would have to sail down the Suez Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope and then all the way up the west coast of Africa before finally docking at Liverpool. U-boats were a very real danger, hence the rather morbid tone of Medhurst’s last letter, which he posted in Durban when the Laconia stopped to refuel. A few days later, disaster struck. At 10:20pm on 12 September the Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat approximately 600 miles off the west coast of Africa. On board were 80 civilians, 136 crew, 285 British Army personnel, 160 Polish soldiers and about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.

Almost immediately the ship began listing heavily to starboard, rendering half the lifeboats useless, but with difficulty four boats were launched from the port side, carrying around 200 survivors. Amid the chaos, Medhurst managed to get Catriona safely into one of the lifeboats along with a nurse called Dorris Hawkins, whom they had met during the voyage, and it is at this point that Now Is The Hour picks up their story.

To say their odds of surviving were slim would be an understatement. The lifeboat had been looted of most of the essentials in Durban, including flares and a rudder, and with 66 people on board a vessel designed to carry 30, rations had to be spread exceedingly thinly, with each person receiving just one tablespoon of fresh water a day.

After 12 days of exposure to the searing tropical heat, Catriona died of what was then known as “privation” and after a brief service her body was thrown over the side. Two days later, Medhurst smashed the ship’s compass, drank all the alcohol out of it and stepped off the back of the boat, effectively committing suicide. Before he did so, however, he handed Hawkins a silver cigarette case to give back to his mother, and this same cigarette case now appears as a prop in the play.

After 27 days at sea, Hawkins and 15 others who had managed to keep themselves alive reached the coast of Liberia.

Medhurst’s cigarette case was returned to his mother in New Zealand and when she died it was discovered by her grandson. “It’s a really special thing for me to have found that case and to have it in the show,” he says, “to know the journey it was on and that that journey ends here.”

• Now Is The Hour is at Hill Street Theatre until 25 August, 4:05pm.

Now is the Hour – Independent review

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.

Lynne Walker