ON THE night of September 17 1940, the cruise liner SS City Of Benares was part of a convoy sailing across the Atlantic from England to Canada. On board were 406 people including 90 children, aged from five to 15, being evacuated from wartime Britain.
Just after midnight the ship was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat and quickly began to sink. As the frantic crew tried to lower the lifeboats the force 10 gale, which was buffeting the ship, played havoc with their efforts. Boats lurched violently in mid-descent tossing passengers into the freezing waters below or, once lowered, were quickly swamped by crashing waves. Amid such terrible conditions many succumbed to exposure or were drowned. In all, 260 people lost their lives including 77 of the 90 children.
Among the few who survived were two teenage girls, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings. Their lifeboat overturned, throwing them into the sea, but they somehow managed to grab on to a rope wrapped round the keel. Dressed only in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and battling lethal cold and exhaustion, the girls desperately clung to the lifeboat for 19 hours until finally being rescued.
Discovering the story
The story of Bess’ and Beth’s ordeal and rescue is brought grippingly to the stage in Lifeboat, from Scotland’s Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, which is among the highlights of this year’s Baboró International Festival for Children.
Written by Belfast’s Nicola McCartney and directed by Gill Robertson, Lifeboat has racked up more than 300 performances since its premiere in 2002. It has toured throughout Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Everywhere it has travelled it has met with glowing reviews; “heart-rending and evocative” (Glasgow Herald ); “among the most engaging and profoundly moving youth-orientated shows I’ve ever seen” (Calgary Sun ); and “Do not miss this fantastic play” (Edinburgh Evening News ).
“I first came across the story in The Independent’s Saturday magazine,” Gill Robertson tells me as she discusses the play’s genesis. “It was a ‘how we met’ piece, and the two people featured were Beth and Bess. In the article they talked about meeting on the City Of Benares and surviving at sea and then remaining friends ever after.
“I thought it was an amazing story of endurance and survival. I wanted to turn it into a drama but at first I thought it had too much in it to make it work. But I met with Nicola and we both spent a weekend with Bess and her husband Geoff, and it felt like the story could happen as a storytelling piece.
“From that we wrote about 10 pages but we still hadn’t been able to speak to Beth so our play was focused on Bess. We realised we needed to speak to Beth. So Nicola spoke to her on the phone and we now had both sides of the story and the girls were quite different as characters. One of them was from London and the other from Liverpool, so we ran their stories in parallel in the play which works.”
Robertson has been the artistic director of Catherine Wheels since founding the company in 1999. She describes what impelled her to create plays for young people.
“After I left college in 1990 there was a children’s festival set up in Edinburgh at the time and the Tramway in Glasgow had opened and there was some great children’s work coming from abroad,” she says. “It was the first time I had seen children’s theatre that wasn’t theatre-in-education, it was just really exciting drama and exciting staging.
“A group of us set up a company called Visible Fictions, also a children’s company, which is still going, and we just made children’s work and we learned while we were doing it. In 1999 I left Visible Fictions and started Catherine Wheels and the idea was just to carry on doing good work for children and young people.
“Also, if the work is good enough for young people then it is good enough for adults. I think a lot of work we have done over the years, and especially Lifeboat, is a great family show.”
Weird twists of fate
Not only did Bess and Beth remain friends for the rest of their lives, Bess also married Beth’s brother Geoff.
“He was a lovely man,” Robertson recalls. “There have been a few books written about City Of Benares and everyone has got remarkable stories. The fact that the two girls survived and that Bess’s brother Louis survived as well - she thought he had drowned - and then she ended up marrying Geoff. There are all these weird twists of fate, if you were writing a fictional drama with them all people probably wouldn’t believe it but it really happened that way.
“The play talks a bit about what happened afterwards and remembering the people that survived and those who didn’t. When the play was first produced Beth and Bess were still alive and they both came to see it. Bess was actually approached by Steven Spielberg but she didn’t want their story to be made into a movie because she had seen Titanic and not liked it.
“We knew this when we went to meet her and we were a bit cautious, wondering would she give us our blessing but she liked us and believed we would honour the story as she would have wanted. It’s an absolute privilege to do the story.”