Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Susan Penhaligon: Into The Night

By | Published on Friday 10 December 2021

I was immediately interested in ‘Into The Night’, the latest production from Original Theatre, the moment I heard about it.

It’s a play about the Penlee lifeboat disaster – in which the crew of the Solomon Browne, from the Penlee Lifeboat Station in Cornwall, lost their lives – and its initial livestream performance is timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of that tragic event.

The show is an adaptation – by Frazer Flintham – of ‘Penlee: The Loss Of A Lifeboat’, a book by Penlee RNLI volunteer and author Michael Sagar-Fenton. And the production is directed by Alistair Whatley.

One of the actors appearing in the show is veteran star of screen and stage Susan Penhaligon. I arranged a quick chat with her to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the content of the play – whose story does it tell and where does the narrative take us?
SP: It’s a retelling, a re-enactment really, of an incredible story of Cornish heroism, the story of the Solomon Browne lifeboat tragedy when two boats were lost off Land’s End in one of the worst storms ever seen in Cornwall, in 1981. It’s a factual telling. No frills, no extras, just what happened. It’s told with care and respect.

CM: Can you tell us about the character you play in it?
SP: I play Mary, the mother of the skipper of the lifeboat, and I narrate. It’s a company show. We all narrate and play various roles.

CM: What attracted you to this role?
SP: I’m Cornish. I was brought up by the sea in St Ives, and as a kid I often watched the lifeboat going past our window. I had to be a part of the retelling this story.

CM: Why is it important for the play being staged at this time?
SP: The story has to be told, and forty years on, it’s about time.

CM: It’s a performance that’s going to be streaming online, and it sounds like it will be a bit of a hybrid of a film and a theatrical approach. How does this affect how you prepare for the recording? Is it different from preparing for a stage play?
SP: I’ve never rehearsed before like we are rehearsing for this performance. It’s certainly a hybrid. It reminds me of the tech days in the old days of TV, when the camera crew came into rehearsals and watched the staging of the drama, moving amongst us to set their shots. The difference is this is going out live! Although, I suppose, early TV was live too!

CM: We’ve seen lots of plays and theatrical projects delivered digitally over the last couple of years, obviously in part because of the pandemic. How do you think it compares to live performance? Do you think it’s a way of delivering culture that will outstay COVID concerns?
SP: Yes, I think it’s a way of keeping culture alive. Of course, nothing can replace a performance in the theatre, but I watched a few digital plays I’d not seen during lockdown. In the case of ‘Into The Night’, I think Alastair Whatley, our director, is aiming for something new, a new genre if you like, not film, not theatre but… I’m not quite sure, we’ll see.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now? You’ve had a long career as a performer. Is that what you always wanted to do?
SP: Yes, I wanted to act since I was very young. Maybe ten? I think actors are born.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career?
SP: Many highlights, many lows, many times not getting a job and many times being in productions which were successful. I’ve been working for a long time, so it’s difficult to pick out the best. I let others do that.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SP: I just want to keep working. Actors don’t retire. It’s our life’s blood. We love it. I’m lucky, I seem to have gone through the stages of womanhood with parts. What’s so interesting is, as I’ve got older, I’ve been playing more quirky characters which I’d never have been cast as when I was young.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SP: I’m doing another Cornish short film, but this time in the Cornish language, which is like Welsh and I don’t speak Cornish. So that’s another challenge!

‘Into The Night’ is broadcast live on 18 Dec, and will be available on demand from 6-30 Jan. See this page here to book yourself into the livestream, and here to view on demand.

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Photo: Michael Wharley