REVIEW: Into the Night by Original Theatre

How do you tell the story of a tragic Cornish maritime disaster to a new audience which honors the lives lost, is sensitive to the feelings of those left behind, captures the bravery of those who follow those lost at sea and creates a drama that is engaging for the viewer who already knows the outcome of the disaster? If you also plan to stage this on the 40th anniversary of the disaster in the middle of a global pandemic when plan B lockdown has been implemented, it creates an extraordinary challenge to everyone involved.

Original Theater seem to have grasped the creative nettle and over the last few years produced some fascinating hybrid works part live theater, part cinema, part streamed story telling. With each production you can see how they have learned from their experimentation and innovation. This latest piece is an eighty-minute docudrama, Into the Night, captured for streaming on a first run through technical rehearsal on 17th December 2021 and is well worth watching before it stops on 20th February.

The Penlee lifeboat disaster occurred between 6pm and 10pm on 19th December 1981. It took the lives of all eight volunteer crew members from Mousehole as they attempted to rescue the five crew and three passengers from a stricken coaster, the Union Star, traveling from Holland to Ireland when it’s engines, generator and radar failed eight miles from Wolf Rock off the Cornish coast. It is a remarkable story of unquestioning bravery of the RNLI men who set out in their boat, the Solomon Browne, in conditions ranging from Gale 8 to Storm 10 with 80mph winds and 12-meter waves to rescue the crew as the Union Star drifted towards the rock. It is a dramatic story with a tragic ending.

The creative team of Director, Alastair Whatley, writer Frazer Flintham, and the cinematographers Matt Hargraves and Sarah Butcher have done a remarkable job staging the production, an adaptation of Michael Sagar-Fenton’s book, in a rehearsal room and capturing it with three cameras. It is a combination of verbatim theater including some original recordings from the event, and dramatic recreations of scenes on the lifeboat, the coaster, the Culdrose Helicopter, the Nord Holland salvage tugboat, Falmouth coastguard, the cliff rescue team and in the homes and pub of Mousehole. Each is created with a minimal number of props, some very atmospheric dark lighting, a realistic soundscape, Cornish music (arranged by James Findlay) and some wonderfully effective filmed footage of waves and rocks. This is best exemplified in a brilliant shot over the shoulder of a man dangling out of the side of the rescue helicopter looking down at the sea. Despite the theatricality of the setting, the dynamic action and bravery and calmness of those engaged in the rescue is beautifully created and conveyed in the capture.

The cast of eight create the multiple characters over seven chapters with ease, switching seamlessly without detracting from the storytelling. Tim Treloar as the Coaster skipper, Tom Chambers as the Helicopter pilot, and Robert Duncan as the Lifeboat coxswain play the central characters with strong support from Susan Penhaligon, Robert Mountford, Hubert Burton, Hazel Simmons, and Madeline Knight. The unseen cameramen of Paulo Bischi , Ben Eeley and Andrei Lionachescu are as much a part of the cast as the performers we see.

The rawness of the capture adds to the sense of drama and energy in each of the dramatic rescue scenes and while some of the earlier scenes are heavy on exposition and narrative by characters talking into the camera which gives it the verbatim documentary feel, the end result is a wonderful tribute to those who died and to all those volunteers who still daily risk their lives to assist those in danger on the seas. COVID may have prevented the planned performance on the fortieth anniversary, but this stream brings the story to a global audience who are bound to be moved and inspired by the selfless bravery of the lifeboat men.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: £18

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