It's a good third of the way through Lifeboat, Replay Theatre Company's contribution to this year's Belfast Children's Festival, before I notice that the bottom layer of Niall Rea's compact, triple-tiered set is actually a large tray of water. It splashes frantically to life as the two young actors, Ruby Campbell and Susan Davey, flail around in it, re-enacting the moment when their steamship sinks en route to Canada from Liverpool, in September 1940.
The ship was SS City of Benares, and ninety of its passengers were children fleeing wartime Britain. All but eleven of them died when their vessel was torpedoed by a German submarine in the mid-Atlantic, and Nicola McCartney's 2002 play tells the story of two teenage survivors, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, who remained friends till they were both old ladies.
Returning to the set: its timbered backpiece is effectively multi-purpose, acting variously as the stern of the upturned lifeboat the two girls cling to, a house-front with windows, a domestic interior, and a large period wireless, complete with tuning dial morphed from the lifebuoy that is there originally. Graphic projections are cleverly deployed to help these transmogrifications, which are managed slickly on a technical level.
Within this tight, constricted area Campbell (Bess) and Davey (Beth) are moved deftly round by first-time director Janice Kernoghan, who belies her notional inexperience by managing the many shifts of time-period and perspective seamlessly. (The narrative makes liberal use of flashback to fill in the protagonists’ stories.)
Kernoghan is fortunate in having two young actresses capable of responding with such intelligence and versatility to the considerable demands placed on them by McCartney’s writing. Playing not just Walder and Cummings, but members of their respective families and other characters, Campbell and Davey have a bunch of different accents to negotiate (Liverpudlian, Scottish, Cockney, upper-class English), and numerous bits of clothing to don and discard quickly. They do it all with practised fluidity, enabling the brisk pace set by Kernoghan’s direction to be convincingly sustained across an uninterrupted seventy minutes.
The central task of establishing the warm parameters of Walder’s and Cumming’s budding friendship when they meet for the first time on the fated steamship is also skilfully negotiated. Playful, sharp, inquisitive, mischievous, happy: all these qualities are economically conveyed in McCartney’s script, and in the very natural, empathetic performances of Campbell and Davey. The courage and resilience the two girls suddenly need to call on when the shipwreck happens emerges graphically, and you sense the sprouting of the bonds forged in adversity which made them fast friends for a lifetime after.
It’s always difficult to know how children’s shows like this will play before their target audiences, in this case 8-11 year olds. The Replay company, however, has a long track record in making such delicate calculations, and it certainly showed with Lifeboat. From start to finish, the dozens of primary school pupils serried in the front rows of the theatre were absolutely silent and raptly attentive, setting standards of decorum which many an adult audience could usefully emulate.