REVIEW: Life Raft at Playbox Theatre


‘Troubling brilliant’ says reviewer Steve Sutherland

IF there’s one thing people seem to agree on now the General Election’s done and dusted, it’s that we find ourselves stuck in a nation divided.

The Haves are hunkering down under siege from the Have Nots. The Self-Interested are building all sorts of legal and financial barriers against the onslaught of the Socially Conscious, who are all for more equality. Those who espouse Every Man For Himself are facing down the challenge of those who maintain the best way is the shared way, All In It Together. In other words we are beginning to witness the emergence of something that usually quietly seethes beneath the fabric of our society — a civil war.

And perhaps the key division which is being trumpeted as a sign that things are about to change is that 60 per cent of under 20s voted Labour, surely a sign that future generations aren’t about to re-enact the sins of their mums and dads.

Well, Life Raft swiftly deals that golden prospect a nasty bloody nose. Based on German playwright Georg Kaiser‘s 1945 play The Raft of the Medusa, Fin Kennedy’s adaption is about 13 children adrift with rapidly diminishing rations after the boat they’re travelling on is sunk. There’s a war going on and it seems there always is. Set in a dystopian future, it feels like now.

Reminiscent of William Golding’s famous study of adolescent savagery, Lord of the Flies, this is way more complex as superstition, brute strength, religion and superiority of age, skill and intellect are all championed as the means to survival, challenged and found wanting.

All 13 actors — that cursed number — spend the entirety of the desperate 90 minutes on stage, and all are all so wonderfully, shockingly believable, each would easily sustain their own lengthy psychological profile. Here they’ll just have to settle for a roll call of plaudits. Jamie Whitelaw and Tess McGoldrick are excellent as Alan and Anne, the self-appointed leaders on a journey toward Fascism, and Molly Perkins is pretty nasty as Enid, their third in command. Biggest bastard is Syd Sutherland’s bully, Alfie Smart, played with a near psychotic glee, while Calum Blackie does the principled Roger, his chief but battered opponent, proud.

Ben Jeffery’s stuttering, victimised Archie is splendidly moving, Paige Cooper’s hysterical Margaret perfectly intense, Kitty Duffy’s Christian Margot annoyingly righteous, Tristan Thomas and Oscar Webster are by turns outraged and petrified as George and Sam while, when Amberqway Alford’s makeshift nurse Anthea finally betrays her charge, Sophia Rowlatt’s convincingly injured Amy, we know the whole game’s up.

Special mention goes to nine-year-old Ed Twyman, whose sacrificial mute Foxy is unbearably distressing.

It’s a bleak, harrowing experience to watch these children desperately slip in and out of beliefs and behaviours, unable to locate the best remedy to their situation as each response proves ultimately hopeless. Cleverly, Emily Quash’s unflinching direction leads us to the realisation that the chaotic drama unfolding on the boat is a microcosm of what’s happening in the big wide world and when rescue finally arrives and the children are spotted by a helicopter, we are torn between instinctive relief, repulsion at the terrible secret they must keep with them forever, and dread that where they’re going is just as brutal as where they’ve just been. There is no escape.

Other big questions which haunt us once the play is over: Is it nurture? Have we preconditioned our children to ape our prejudices, in which case we’re doomed. Or is it nature? No matter what the age or the circumstance, are we genetically geared to engineer our own downfall?

This is a typically brave and honest Playbox production, asking actors and audience alike to look deep into ourselves and be prepared to not always like what we find. Perhaps even more troubling than the sight of some parents leaving the theatre in tears and others suggesting the actors may need counselling is overhearing some of the kids in the audience wonder aloud why the cast didn’t just slaughter Foxy and eat him.

Meanwhile, as we exit, the stirrup-ed ropes that delivered salvation from the sky hang there dangling, for all the world like empty nooses.

What that may mean doesn’t bear contemplating.