Making theatre for children can be a tricky thing. After all, in a world where most three-year-olds can navigate an iPad, how do you keep an adolescent entertained with just people, props and lights? The answer, of course, is story. Whereas a lot of children’s theatre over-relies on bombastic effects and crude humour, Lifeboat is a simple production with a great story – and the children in the audience were gripped.
Lifeboat tells the true story of two teenage girls in WWII-ravaged Britain, who meet as evacuees on a ship set for Canada. The girls are different in almost every way – Bess is an adventurous Cockney girl, whereas Beth is a Liverpudlian homebody – but they soon become fast friends. When the ship sinks and the girls are stranded on an upturned lifeboat, it’s this friendship that wills them to cling on.
As a production, Lifeboat is as bare as the titular lifeboat. It started as a school-touring show and West Yorkshire Playhouse has bravely opted to add little in the way of production design. The emphasis here is on the acting and the story. Audience members are encouraged to sit on the floor, which may seem a twee exercise, but actually adds to the scrappy, storytelling experience.
The two lead actresses, Lois Mackie and Amy McGregor, jump easily between roles, from Indian boatmen to each other’s parents, without even the crutch of costume changes. It’s their energetic performances that keep you engaged, along with Nicola McCartney’s excellent script. There’s a risk that younger children may find the character-jumps and the story’s flashback structure confusing, but it’s refreshing to see a production that doesn’t patronise its younger audience.
Lifeboat may be small in the way of theatrical effects, but, at 70 minutes, it’s a brief, spirited, impressively cheery telling of one of the many tragic tales from WWII and a reminder that sometimes a good story is all you need.
Lifeboat will be playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 13th May.