Life Raft (Bristol Old Vic) ****

Life Raft photo Jack Offord
Originally published on Public Reviews 5th September 2015.

Thirteen children adrift on a life raft with little rations and only a distant hope of rescue to sustain them. For Georg Kaiser, writing in 1945, the idea of these children being stranded at sea in a war-torn world would have seemed brutally prescient. In a week where we’ve been subjected to images of children washed up on beaches on suicidal journeys driven by hope, what is brutally apparent is how little has changed.

I’ve always felt like Kaiser’s The Raft of the Medusa has been unfairly overlooked by critics and academics but Fin Kennedy’s updated version, with a simpler name and given a masterful production by Melly Still, is an adrenaline rush of a piece: funny, tender, brutal and finally heartbreaking. Lord Of The Flies meets Battle Royale, it doesn’t pull its punches but, with blood and excrement tossed freely around, it’s proof that youth theatre shouldn’t be the preserve of the sanitised. It’s without doubt the best youth work I’ve seen and shows that outreach programmes fulfil a much more important function than a box to tick on ACE funding applications.

Over six days, 13 children stranded and alone mimic the actions of their elders and show that it is human nature to create war. Leaders are made, factions are chosen, fascism raises its head, violence is perpetuated and the strong pick off the weak. Human nature was ever thus. By staging it on the cavernous main stage, Still never allow us to forget these are children playing at being adults. The stage swamps them though the performances ensure that it never swallows them. As one couple share their tentative first kiss the group giggle, a reminder of the playground innocence which has been lost to them. There are excellent performances from Amy Kemp and Toby Yapp as the two oldest children who become de-facto leaders and partners, Oscar Adams as the bullying muscle and Charlie Leaver as the youngest and potentially most traumatised of them all. However, the performances are universally strong.

Not everything works; the pace of the first few scenes is dictated by the actors being asked to pick up their cues quickly but ends up developing a repetitive rhythmic pattern, while Finn Kennedy’s text occasionally falls into modern anachronisms – “Anne can piss off” – that go against its anytime, anywhere aesthetic. Still, the list of great plays for young people is small and Kennedy’s work is surely going to become a staple in schools and youth groups in years to come. A final mention must be made of Max Johns’ design which sees him sign off from his fellowship at BOV with a simple but powerful piece of Brechtian design that conjures up much with so little.


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