Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

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As I head to Kings Street for tonight’s performance of Life Raft there is a post-apocalyptic feel in town. Neighbouring Queens Square is unusually shut to the public for a ticket only event featuring a giant mechanical fuel-spewing spider. Surreal? The evening is about to get more so.

We enter the theatre for Life Raft. In the Old Vic the action starts without warning as children literally scramble over the pit seats to get to the stage. They are heading for a life raft, having come from some unspecified disaster. They are young – the eldest and self-nominated leader just 14 years old. And so begins the struggle to survive with each other on board.

In Life Raft, writer Fin Kennedy retells ‘The Raft of Medusa’ by playwright Georg Kaiser based on actual events during the second world war. The altruistic ideals of the original 1945 story are clearly evident. And just as pertinent now than at any time.

The dialogue and action sway from the optimism  of “‘we’re kids, they won’t just leave us here”, and “we’re all in this together” to more gritty scenes of having to choose between who has and who has not. Themes of comradeship and morals weave through as the bickering escalates and desperation takes hold.

The play is all the more poignant because most members of the cast are so young – just two supporting adults in ghost-like roles in the background. The children are all part of Bristol Old Vic Young Company. They do an amazingly convincing job of showing the terror, confusion and helplessness of the situation; 13 children in a boat alone at sea. This is a story of survival but also raises many questions about what it is to feel hope and a sense of cohesion. There are some glimpses too of how to stop before the greed takes over. Harsh realities of wretchedness of human nature are highlighted particularly by the contrast of the character Foxy who does not speak.

The play, well directed by Melly Still, is haunting and harrowing in places. As the story nears its conclusion there is some beautiful dancing which helps soften the harshness. The glimmers of light are welcome.

This is not a fairy story by any means and the recommended age of 10+ is well placed here. But there is plenty of food for thought, not least a reminder of how our judgements impact directly on others.

This production celebrates the outreach work by the BOV and that’s to be applauded. The children steal the show – well it was theirs to begin with.

– Review by Francesca Ward

Life Raft is at Bristol Old Vic until 5th September

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