Trevelyan Ricards

Robert Duncan as Coxswain Trevelyan Richards.

Pictures: Helen Maybanks

Into The Night

Original Theatre Online


Twenty twenty two may be less than a week old but I doubt there will be a more moving or more telling play on stage or screen this year.

It marks the 40th anniversary of what was a seafaring disaster but also a glorious triumph of the spirit of humanity, risking all for your fellow man.

If ever a word exemplified courage way, way above and beyond mere bravery it is Penlee. Forty years ago in an angry ocean that even the most fool hardy sailor would fear, the Penlee Lifeboat at Mousehole, was launched to go to the aid of the Union Star, whose engines had failed.

The stricken and powerless mini-bulk carrier, on her maiden voyage, carrying fertiliser from Holland to Ireland, was drifting toward the rocky Cornish coast in 60ft waves with winds gusting at more than 100mph, the worst storm in living memory.

Attempts were made to restart the engines without success and after a request from Falmouth Coastguard a Sea King helicopter was launched from RNAS Culdrose but with hurricane force winds, the ship rolling heavily and the Union Star’s mast a threat to the safety of the Sea King, a rescue, after many attempts. was finally deemed impossible.

The Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne, had been on standby for two hours when it was finally called out at 8.12 pm on 19 December, 1981.

chambers pilot

Tom Chambers as the US Navy exchange pilot LCDR Russell Smith

In Mousehole it was a festive time, with the switching on of the Christmas lights just celebrated and the scene was set as we jump from the harbourside local, The Ship Inn, to the home of the Lifeboat Coxswain Trevelyan Richards, to the coastguard at Falmouth and to the skipper of the stricken Union Star, Henry Morton.

At first you are merely observers, but slowly scene by scene, you are drawn in, the characters, the dangers, the raw courage become real, so that by the end you are with them body and soul, you feel their pain, their loss.

The play uses an ensemble of eight actors to play every part, Hubert Burton, Tom Chambers, Robert Duncan, Madeline Knight, Robert Mountford, Susan Penhaligon, Hazel Simmons and Tim Treloar.

Cornishman Robert Duncan is simply superb as Trevelyan Richards, a trawler skipper and the Solomon Browne's coxswain, a no nonsense leader who knows the dangers lifeboatmen face, as do his crew. It takes a special courage to put the safety of others above your own.

Susan Penhaligon, another Cornish born and bred, is his mother, Mary, among other characters with everyone acting as a narrator to unfold the story.

Tom Chambers a leading lifeboat crew member is also convincing as United States Navy exchange-pilot LCDR Russell Smith, pilot of the Sea King, who tries all he can to affect a rescue in impossible conditions.

Tim Treloar battles on as the skipper of the Union Star, Henry Morton, while Madeleine Knight plays his wife Dawn. She was not meant to be there and had been picked up at an unauthorised stop in Essex, along with teen stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne, so the family could be together for a Christmas they would now never see.

As a sidebar, Hubert Burton plays Johannes Buurman the skipper of a salvage tug in nearby Penzance, but by the time the Union Star’s owners can be traced and have agreed a deal with the tug owners to a rescue, Buurman deems the Union Star too close to the dangerous shore and won’t risk his tug.

Skipper and wife

Tim Treloar as the skipper of the Union Star, Henry Morton, with Madeleine Knight as his wife Dawn, hoping for rescue.

Co-ordinating the night’s evolving drama are Hazel Simmons, another Cornish actress, and Robert Mountford at Falmouth Coastguard.

It’s a cast playing many parts but all end up as crew, who, along with Richards, were Second Coxswain/Mechanic Stephen Madron, Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman, Emergency Mechanic John Blewett, and crewmembers Charlie Greenhaugh, the landlord of The Ship Inn, incidentally, Kevin Smith, Barrie Torrie and Gary Wallis.

Neil Brockman, son of Nigel, though experienced, was not picked that night by Richards as he was reluctant to take to two members of the same family. Neil was to becomes the coxswain of the new Penlee lifeboat, now based at nearby Newlyn where a bigger, faster, more powerful boat was moored.

The play was directed by Alastair Whatley, born three years after the disaster, and written by Frazer Flintham, based on the book Penlee: The Loss of a Lifeboat by Michael Sagar-Fenton who lived a couple of miles away from the disaster and went to the cliffs to see the apocolyptic site  the following morning.

The Union Star, was capsized, left keel up on the rocks, while wreckage of the Solomon Browne was washed up along the coast, while of the 16 people lost, not all were found, including the bodies of four lifeboat crew.

Covid has seen many productions, of necessity, streamed on-line, turning living rooms into theatres and this is one of the best, a gripping, emotive drama which perhaps more than anything exemplifies what the RNLI stand for, Service not self is the motto on the memorial to the eight crew by the Penlee station.

Perhaps the final words should go to LCDR Russell Smith, pilot of the Sea King, who returned to assist the Solomon Browne with its search lights and aerial viewpoint above the Union Star.

He said: “The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty's hatch covers.

“They were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”

Roger Clarke


Into the Night is available to watch on-line from 12-01-22 to 20-02-22  and can be booked HERE.

As a footnote, the anti RNLI rhetoric from the likes of Nigel Farage and Priti Patel among others, relating to their life saving of people crossing the English Channel, has had the unintended, but welcome consequence of contributing to a record year for RNLI fundraising and membership. RNLI 

Index page Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre