There are two stories to Now Is The Hour; the first is contained in the play itself, the second involves how the play came to be written.
The second story, first
There had been occasional mention made throughout his life that his mother had once had a brother who died in the war. But that was all he knew. When she passed away in 2006, however, producer Peter Christopherson finally unearthed a treasure trove of letters containing a long-buried family secret. Reading the letters, like chapters in a book in random order, he began to understand why so little had been said.
His uncle and namesake Peter Medhurst had been a pilot, a New Zealander serving with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. His duties had taken him to Egypt, where in 1941 he began an affair with a married Scottish aristocrat.
The letters revealed a young man of fervent passions, living life to the full while taking time off in London, and falling in love at the drop of a hat. They stopped abruptly however in September 1942, his final letter posted from Durban in South Africa on Cunard White Star notepaper. He was travelling back to Britain with his lover on a ship called the Laconia, a former ocean liner requisitioned as a troop ship. Seemingly drunk with passion, he signed off, “if we do get sunk then at least we’re together, so what the hell.”
A little more research revealed how tragically prophetic those words were. The Laconia was sunk, only a few weeks later, while travelling through the Atlantic. But the revelations did not end there.
Researching the sinking, Christopherson uncovered a short volume entitled Atlantic Torpedo: The record of 27 days in an open boat following a U-boat sinking, written by a nurse named Doris Hawkins. In it, the sunken ship was not even named (it was published in 1943, and such details remained classified). Nor did it mention the names of anyone on board the stranded lifeboat where Hawkins found herself following the sinking. It had long been revealed that the sinking in question was that of the Laconia; what came as a revelation on reading the book was that Hawkins’s sole female companion on board was a young Scottish aristocrat – easily confirmed by the details given about her as none other than the object of Peter Medhurt’s affections.
Not only that, but there was, apparently, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm lieutenant on board as well. Peter – surely? – maybe?
Another book provided more clues. One Common Enemy by Jim McLoughlin was yet another first hand account of those 27 days spent in an open boat, this one not published until 2006. McLoughlin had been a young naval officer on board the Laconia at the time of its sinking. He “celebrated” his twenty-first birthday in the lifeboat that he shared with Doris, the young aristocrat and a host of others, watching, over the course of its journey, some three-quarters of its passengers die of thirst.
Confirmation of the Fleet Air Arm lieutenant’s identity came in the detail that he was not only a New Zealander, but a “mad bastard” who drank the alcohol in the boat’s compass and threw himself overboard shortly after the death of the young aristocrat. So that was that: Peter and his lover’s story, waiting desperately to be told.
Christopherson soon got in touch with David Walter Hall, a writer with whom he had worked in the past, and discussed the possiblity of creating a script based on the story, and taking a play to the Edinburgh Festival. Naturally, Hall jumped at the opportunity, and the result was the now critically-acclaimed play Now is the Hour, which you are reading about today.
The very letters that Christopherson discovered are preserved and available for larger theatres to display as an accompanying exhibition in their foyer or public spaces. In addition, a silver cigarette case owned by Peter Medhurst, which he asked to have returned to his family only hours before he threw himself overboard – a pivotal scene in the play – is likewise available for display.
The play itself
Immediately, we are on board the Laconia as it sets off from Tewfik, Egypt, on a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up through the Atlantic to Britain.
We see Doris settling into her cabin. With her is a baby, “Sally”, whom she is transporting home on behalf of her parents. Entering the next cabin, Kat arrives, an aristocratic young lady, somewhat in a fluster, unsure of how much she can afford to reveal about herself.
They go to dinner, where they meet Colonel Stevens and Major Simpson. The Colonel is an old aquaintance of Doris’s, and they seem pleased to be unexpectedly travelling together. Suddenly Peter enters the dining room, sending Kat into a state of shock. They take their conversation out onto the deck.
Kat was not expecting Peter on board. The pair were lovers, they had planned to travel away from Egypt together, but when Peter was called back into service, it seems that Kat had been too quick to embrace her slight sense of relief at travelling alone. She had hardly expected that it would be her husband, a senior officer, who would pull the strings necessary to allow Peter on board. She feels betrayed, by her husband, by fate, perhaps by herself as well. Peter is baffled – and angry. They have a falling out, and, writing a letter to his mother, he describes the dreariness of the week that follows, watching Kat from afar but unable to speak to her.
We return to the deck to witness Colonel Stevens arbitrarily attacking two Polish soldiers. His mental state seems fragile and he is only saved from a beating by the intervention of Doris, who arrives just in time. She takes him to sick bay, where we are introduced to Doctor Purslow, one of the play’s other real-life characters.
Time passes. Doris resolves to help Purslow with his daily duties, to relieve the boredom of the trip. As they dock in Durban, a homesick Peter is listening to a Maori song on his gramophone. Kat enters, a little lonely perhaps, they spend the night together in her hotel room, and their affair is back on.
Some time later we see a drunken Colonel Stevens and Captain Simpson in the ship’s smoking room. In walks Coots, a young officer who has fought alongside the Colonel. The Colonel tries to make Coots talk about their shared ordeal – all their fellow officers were killed – but Coots will not. Instead the Colonel bullies him into downing a pint of brandy, while Simpson passes out in his chair.
We return to Doris, who is ill and being looked after by Kat in her cabin. Expecting Doris to be at work in sick bay, Peter appears, looking for Kat. Doris is immediately suspicious and quite judgmental about their relationship. Peter chooses to pretend he was only there to issue an invitation to a party in the smoking room that evening, makes his excuses and leaves.
At the party we see Simpson entertaining the room singing with his accordion. He encourages Kat to sing “My Bonnie”, in tribute to her husband. Mid-song, the first torpedo strikes. All move to abandon ship. A second torpedo strikes and the stage falls dark.
Act two begins with Peter, Kat, Purslow, Doris, Simpson, the Colonel, Coots and others boarding one of the ship’s lifeboats. Coots irreparably damages his hads while descending a rope, and Peter, who is carrying baby Sally in a makeshift sling, loses her in the water. (Doris’s memoir was later dedicated to the memory of Sally, “who never knew sin nor suffering.”)
Morning comes and the Colonel explains the situation to boat’s crew: they have limited rations, very little water and they they have become separated from the other boats dunring the night. Taking official command he orders the men who can to begin rowing in the direction of the African coast.
Later that day they encounter a raft of Italian stragglers: prisoners of war who had been held on the Laconia. An individual swims towards them, the Colonel ordering his men to hack his hands off if necessary to prevent him boarding. The swimmer reveals himself to be English however, so he is allowed aboard. He is Mac, a Liverpudlian sailor whom we saw boarding the Laconia in port at Durban. He recounts his experience of a night spent aboard the very U-Boat that sank the Laconia, and its subsequent bombing by a trigger-happy American plane – the only mention in the play of the Laconia Incident (which is perhaps the best known story related to the sinking, and was dramatised in The Sinking of the Laconia, shown on BBC2 in 2010).
Four days later and they are still rowing, but growing weaker. Peter and Mac are at the oars. They decide to stop, against the Colonel’s orders. Purslow suggests a risky plan, to convert an oar into a makeshift mast, creating a sail with some tarpaulin. If it fails, they may not be able to row at all, but it seems worth the risk. The Colonel temporarily cedes command to Purslow while the conversion takes place.
On their twelfth day at sea, they awake to find that Simpson has died in the night. Purslow offers to lead a short service, before his body is lowered overboard. Later that day they experience some light rain – a sea fret – and wonder if it is Simpson’s spirit somehow trying to help them. Peter and Doris argue about the virtues of his apparent life of pleasure.
Two days later, and three more men are gone: Robbie and Stubbs died in the night, while Coots waited to see one final sunrise before casting himself overboard. Meanwhile there are signs that Kat is unwell.
Later that day, Kat gives her wedding ring to Doris, to be returned to her husband. Peter is alarmed and encourages her not to give up hope. But asking him to sing to her, she falls asleep in his arms, never to wake up again.
While death has become commonplace on board, as the first woman to die, Kat is afforded a short service, and a recitation of the 23rd Psalm.
Late the following night, Peter is talking to Doris. He gives her his silver cigarette case, to be returned to his family. Just as Peter did for Kat, Doris tries to give him encouragement to go on, but he is inconsolable. We see flashbacks as Peter recalls the moment he and Kat met, their hopes and frustrations, and when he returns to reality some time has passed and he appears to be raving mad. He drinks the alcohol in the boat’s compass and throws himself overboard – a futile act of revenge against the cruelty of the world.
A few days later and it is Mac’s twenty-first birthday. To celebrate, he is given a double water ration by the Colonel: four tablespoons. Purslow refuses his own ration as it would be, in his view, wasteful – he is ill and “sure to be a gonner”. With dignity and grace, he sacrifices himself, falling overboard. There are now only three remaining: the Colonel, Doris and Mac.
The Colonel wakes the next day to see Mac and Doris drinking tea and eating cakes, being served by tail-coated waiters. They invite him to join them, but he fights against indulging in their fantasy. Then a rainstorm arrives, jolting Mac and Doris back to reality. They collect the rainwater using the tarpaulin and rejoice in their newfound hopes of salvation.
A few days later a flying boat roars overhead. It threatens to do a “bombing run”, but the bomb it drops contains bananas, orange juice and a note reading “help is on its way”. The play ends with Doris completing her letter to Peter’s mother.
The one act version of the play essentially contains the events of the second act, as described here.