Exactly forty years ago today (19th December) a lifeboat set out from the Penlee station near Mousehole to rescue the passengers of a stricken vessel heading for the rocks of the Cornish coast. They never returned. A total of sixteen lives were lost in a disaster that is still marked to this day when the village’s Christmas lights are dimmed in remembrance of those who perished. And for this anniversary year in a further act of remembrance the Original Theatre Company have produced Into The Night, a moment by moment account of that dreadful night and its awful consequences.
OTC have been pushing at the boundaries of theatrical possibility throughout the pandemic, pioneering a unique hybrid of theatre and film which has already taken us to the trenches of the First World War (Birdsong) and even outer space (Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of the Moon). What was due to make this production even more unique was the intention that it should be livestreamed on the eve of the anniversary of the event itself. Even though that was dramatic enough in itself, there was to be a final twist. Covid did its thing and with two members of the company testing positive overnight there was little choice but to pull the event; a recording of the only complete run through (essentially the technical/dress rehearsal) from Friday evening was aired instead. As director Alastair Whatley observed in the post-show Q and A (Zoomed in from company member’s homes) their own troubles were as nothing compared to those of the unfortunate souls caught up in the disaster, but it did add an extra frisson to proceedings and enhanced the theme of accepting challenge in the face of adversity.
Frazer Flintham’s script is thrillingly brought to life in a dynamic account of events which is almost documentary in style. Beginning in Under Milk Wood vein , the audience is given scene setting, direct address descriptions and introduced to a tight knit community centred around the pub. As the piece progresses the linking narration recedes, and the story of that night becomes told more directly. There are scenes set on the bridge of the foundering Union Star, in the coastguard’s office in Falmouth and, thrillingly realised, a Sea King helicopter which attempts the initial rescue but is hampered by raging seas and howling winds. Then there is the lifeboat itself, the Solomon Browne, helmed by Coxswain Trevelyan Richards (a sternly focused Robert Duncan). As the eight strong crew – the cast size deliberately echoes reality – take their places we learn a little about each in a sequence that puts a human face on the tragic events. The octet also play all the other roles so, for instance the always dependable Tim Treloar plays the pub landlord and the captain of the vessel in distress as well as a lifeboatman. Other well-known faces such as Susan Penhaligon and Tom Chambers bring their wealth of experience to bear.
It is evident that OTC have learned much from mounting their previous theatre/film productions and it is life enhancing to see the company keep pushing back artistic barriers by upping the ante each time. This is a vital story excitingly told using stylised scene setting techniques and live delivery of the action which keeps the piece theatrical. At the same time there’s clever use of filmic aspects to bring even more immediacy with panoramic shots and jump cuts keeping up the momentum. The actors and cameramen engage in an almost fluid dance, using a constant rocking motion to suggest the boats’ movements all played out to a video backdrop of a tempestuous sea. Ryan Gilman’s projection design is a major asset especially when combined with Dominic Bilkey’s underpinning soundscape. In truth there are a number of fluffed lines, missed cues and sound and lighting glitches but, do you know what, it didn’t really matter. The strength of this powerful and moving story, the commitment of the actors and technicians and the sense of occasion that this production achieves is enough to banish any negative thoughts. Indeed, given the circumstances in which the production found itself, it is a triumph that it even made it into our homes. It deserves your time and attention when it becomes available in early 2022. Meanwhile spare a thought this evening for the bravery and heroism which this play seeks to remember and celebrate.