Looking at the programme for Into The Night, one would be forgiven for thinking that if it were not for this production, the 1981 Penlee lifeboat disaster would be forgotten. This seems rather presumptuous, given that the local community has done very well over the last forty years to make sure it is remembered. The local football club, Mousehole AFC, has named a new stand ‘The Solomon Browne Stand’, in honour of the lifeboat that attempted a rescue of the eight people on board a cargo ship, Union Star, whose engine failed in treacherous conditions. Each year, on 19 December, the community of Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village, come together to commemorate the tragic events, and the Christmas lights are dimmed. What was the lifeboat station at the time has been left largely intact and is periodically opened to the public.
The lighting in this production may not be the best, even if it is meant to (sort of) replicate a dark night at sea where flares were requested to be launched so rescue teams could see where exactly the stricken vessel was located. The narrative makes clear that the technology available then wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now. I’m not sure it was strictly necessary to point out there were “no mobile phones” in 1981 – and not just because, technically speaking, they were in existence as early as 1973, when Motorola launched a prototype. The show speaks of 1981 as being an entirely different world altogether, implying quite unhelpfully that if GPS could have been used then they
wouldn’t have needed to faff about trying to confirm the precise location of the Union Star. It’s like bemoaning the inability of the ship’s captain to put up an SOS post on Instagram. Oh, if only they could have tweeted for help! The time wasted on using rotary dial phones instead of push-button ones…
More than occasionally the storytelling gets repetitive, with the narrator (a part shared by various members of the company) insisting on saying directly to camera what has already just been said in dialogue. The pacing is uneven: there is an understandable sense of urgency as the plight of the Union Star, and more pertinently, its crew and guests, becomes increasingly clearer. But as the Solomon Browne is being prepared for launch, there’s a long and detailed preamble of every selected crew member, and even a couple of those that weren’t selected by the coxswain, Trevelyan Richards. It is undeniably right that each crewmember should be properly acknowledged, though I wonder if the detailed backstories would be better placed elsewhere in the narrative, perhaps at the end, when time could be given over to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
This is a carefully detailed and researched production, remaining accessible to those (like me) who are not regularly exposed to life at sea. The cinematography works well, providing a palpable sense of the challenges faced, for instance, by a rescue helicopter called the Sea King, or the unusually high waves both the Union Star and the Solomon Browne had to deal with. The show is bookended by what I can only assume are Cornish folk songs, which ramp up emotions as stirring tunes tend to do. A compelling account of real events with some innovative storytelling techniques deployed.
Review by Chris Omaweng
On Saturday 19 December 1981, the Penlee lifeboat ‘Solomon Browne’, was launched in hurricane conditions to go to the aid of the coaster ‘Union Star’ that had engine failure and was being swept towards the southern coast of Cornwall. It was an attempted rescue that ranks not only with the greatest in the history of the RNLI, but with any human achievement. Marking 40 years since the event, INTO THE NIGHT is a unique theatrical performance which having been broadcast live, the filmed performance will then be available on-demand from 6 – 30 January 2022.
INTO THE NIGHT has been adapted by playwright and screenwriter Frazer Flintham from Penlee RNLI volunteer and author Michael Sagar-Fenton’s book Penlee: The Loss of a Lifeboat. It is directed by Original Theatre Company’s Alastair Whatley.
The cast will be Hubert Burton, Tom Chambers, Cornish actor Robert Duncan, James Findlay, Madeleine Knight, Robert Mountford, Cornish actresses Susan Penhaligon and Hazel Simmons, and Tim Treloar.
The Original Theatre Company in association with Martyn Hayes presents
INTO THE NIGHT by Frazer Flintham
Based on the book Penlee: The Loss of a Lifeboat by Michael Sagar-Fenton