Te Papa: Soundings, Wellington

28/02/2008 - 01/03/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details


A story of friendship, courage and survival

Based on an astonishing true story, Lifeboat tells the story of Bess Walder and Beth Cummings. Theirs is a tale that cemented a lifetime friendship as they faced a battle to survive in circumstances that neither could have imagined. Aimed at an intermediate to young adult as well as an adult audience, Lifeboat was described thus by the UK’s Daily Mail, "As children’s theatre goes, Lifeboat is a peach, as theatre for grown ups – it’s a delight . . . a gloriously entertaining journey."

Winner of the Barclays Stage Award for Best Show, Lifeboat tells the tale of two 15-year-old evacuees who spent 19 terrifying hours in the water on an upturned lifeboat. Making its New Zealand debut at the NZ International Arts Festival, this stunning production will be staged at the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa for both public and school performances.  It will also be performed throughout the Greater Wellington Region.

The day was Friday 13 September 1940, the ship, The City of Benares set sail from Liverpool for Canada. On board were 90 evacuees escaping the seemingly unyielding bombing and the never-ending rationing and other repercussions of war-torn Britain.

Four days into the crossing, the ship was torpedoed by the Nazis in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and sunk. Only 11 of the evacuees survived, among them were Bess Walder and Beth Cumming, willing each other to survive in a force-eight gale until help arrived. 

Now, over sixty years later, they remain firm friends and the play ends with the characters, who are now sisters-in-law (Bess married Beth’s brother) recounting their time as evacuees, what the experience taught them and what they went on to do later in life.

The Stage Newspaper commented "The success of the writing is its ability to make the friendship between the two little girls so recognizably real, despite the surreal situation in which they find themselves."

Director and founder of Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, Gill Robertson, first came across the remarkable story of Bess and Beth in a magazine article: "I immediately thought that this was a fantastic story that had to be told, but I also thought it was near enough impossible to stage. I spoke to scriptwriter Nicola McCartney about the story and it really captured her imagination too, so we set about working out how we could bring it alive for young audiences."

"A wonderful, affectionate portrait of wartime family life, with a powerful feeling for the popular music and culture … there’s the sheer passion and spirit of two brilliant actors who bring the story alive, so much so, that at the end the audience wiped the tears from their eyes and rose to give them a standing ovation."
The Scotsman Critic’s Choice

The process of staging the story involved interviewing Bess Walder and Beth Cummings. When it was first performed in 2002, Bess Walder went to one of the first shows in Glasgow. Robertson remembers: "It was quite an amazing night when Bess came to the show in Glasgow. It was actually quite emotional – particularly for Suzanne, the actress playing Bess – it was great to have her there."

Following a successful tour of the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada and New York, Catherine Wheels Theatre Company is bringing their award-winning production of Lifeboat to New Zealand for the first time with the help of the Scottish Arts Council.

No child or adult will leave this performance without the positive reinforcement of the power of friendship.

There will be three public performances at Soundings Theatre, Te Papa;
28 February at 6pm, 1 March at 1pm & 5pm.

Lifeboat will also be performed at the following venues in the Wellington region:

Upper Hutt, Expressions Theatre, 23 February, 3pm
Greytown, Kuranui College, 3 March, 7pm
Lower Hutt, Little Theatre, 8 March, 2pm 

More about the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company

Gill Robertson set up Catherine Wheels Theatre Company in 1999, collaborating with practitioners Jay Manley and Annie Wood (now Artistic Director at Polka Theatre) to create the company’s first production Martha.  The public and critical response to the show was so successful that it has remained in the repertoire ever since, performing at theatres throughout the UK, Ireland and North America, including Broadway.

In 2002 the company produced Lifeboat by Nicola McCartney and won the Barclays Stage Award for Best Show for Children and Young People. The company was nominated again in 2003 for The Story of the Little Gentleman. Last year’s Cyrano was voted one of the Sunday Herald’s top 10 shows of the year. These successes have established Catherine Wheels as a leading producer of theatre for children and young people.

Bess Walder Suzanne Robertson

Beth Cummings Isabelle Joss


Designer Karen Tennant
Composer David Trouton
Lighting designer Jeanine Davies
Costume designer Alison Brown
Producer Paul Fitzpatrick
Administrator Louise Gilmour Wills
Production manager Craig Fleming
Technical manager Liam Boucher 

1 hr 10 mins, no interval

Quality work

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

Two English girls, adrift on a lifeboat after their ship supposedly taking them to sanctuary in Canada, is sunk by the Germans.  They have to hang on to their overturned lifeboat, Bess (Suzanne Robertson) and Beth (Isabelle Joss), as dozens of other children drown in the cold dark waters. 

They flash back to their homes in London and Liverpool, one relatively well-to-do and the other crammed, both children loved so much their parents wanted them safe when war came. 

The two excellent actors portray countless characters with energy and wit, never putting a foot wrong.  This is aimed at kids and a perfect way to teach them about wartime from a child’s perspective, but on opening night there were far more war-babies in the audience, so it was a reminiscence for them.

Quality work. 


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Tale of a sinking proves uplifting

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 01st Mar 2008

Lifeboat is a little gem produced by the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company from Musselburgh in Scotland. In 2002 the play won the Barclays Stage Award for the best show for children and young people.

It’s a 70-minute part true-life adventure story, part history lesson, and part memorial to the 87 children and young people who were drowned in the Atlantic on Friday 13, 1940 when a German torpedo sank The City of Benares which was taking them to Canada to escape the bombing and the possible invasion of Britain.

The play concentrates on teenagers Bess Walder from London and Beth Cummings from Liverpool, who became friends on the ship and who somehow willed themselves to hang on to a lifeboat and miraculously survive after about 19 hours in the water. Now in their eighties they remain friends and Bess married Beth’s brother.

It is an extraordinary story and it is told simply and energetically as the details of life in wartime England and the girls’ families are neatly and amusingly presented in flashback. Lighting, sound effects and some brief song-and-dance sequences which fit neatly into the play because Bess wanted to be an actress and Somewhere over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz is her favourite song.

Suzanne Robertson (Bess) and Isabelle Joss (Beth) complement each other perfectly. At the start I thought they were going to be a little bit too winsome but as they introduced family, officials, and even the Indian ship’s steward with immediately accessible characterizations and all with a gentle humour my fears dissipated and I was entirely won over.

This story, forcibly and cleverly told, of friendship and endurance is also a stimulating and imaginative introduction to the theatre for today’s young, breast fed on TV.


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Fresh, fizzy, packs a wallop

Review by John Smythe 29th Feb 2008

Bess Walder from London was 15 and Beth Cummings from Liverpool was 14 in 1940, when their boat sank in the Atlantic. Now they are 82 and 83 respectively. And even though Lifeboat – their near-death experience as dramatised by Nicola McCartney and directed by Gill Robertson for Scotland’s Catherine Wheels Theatre Company – is primarily pitched at school children, it offers delight to any age group.

Already brought up on their Dad’s songs from the so-called ‘Great War’, the girls initially take the outbreak of WWII and the onset of the Battle of Britain in their still-innocent strides (in their skips?). "I love air raids!" Bess declares at one point, oblivious to the lives they shatter each time. Family is all, along with illicitly listened-to pop-songs and Hollywood-fuelled romantic fantasies.

Adventurous Bess wants to be an actress in Technicolor and go to Canada. Home-body Beth doesn’t want to go anywhere. But children are being evacuated to Commonwealth countries (given the use of radio broadcasts elsewhere in the show, it’s a shame they didn’t use Princess Elizabeth’s appeal on the Children’s Hour). Thus both Bess and Beth are among the 90 who board The City of Benares at Liverpool docks, on Friday 13 September 1940, for a voyage to Canada under naval escort.

It’s their mutual love of The Wizard of Oz that bonds them on board and Dorothy’s heel-clicking spell, "There’s no place like home," that becomes their life-saving mantra. Indeed it’s the line that opens the play amid sonic turmoil, as the girls sway and drift on horizontal bungy cords … The stories of who they are, where they come from and how they came to be in this position are told in fluently staged flashbacks.

It’s a German torpedo that sinks their ship the play’s core energy comes from the way their strong friendship fuels their determination to survive. For all its ‘popular theatre’ presentation style, when the high drama hits home it is given its due in truth and without melodrama.  

Adult actresses Suzanne Robertson (Bess) and Isabelle Joss (Beth) imbue their teenaged characters with an idealised optimism that these days would suggest a pre-teen phase, and act out each other’s parents and siblings with the same spirited glee.

Set and lighting designer Karen Tennent’s simple set evokes the ship’s deck mostly but also houses their homes, trains, a picture theatre and the ocean itself. Composer David Trouton’s sound design brings those old-time melodies back and fills the auditorium with powerful turbulence as required. The actresses wear head-mics that are judiciously employed when their voices are part of a bigger sound mix.

Thoroughly developed and honed in every respect (it opened in 2002 and has toured extensively since), yet still fresh and fizzy, Lifeboat packs a wallop because it is fundamentally about life, death and the human spirit. Oh, and it’s a highly entertaining history lesson too: informing the young and reminding the old.  


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