Shackleton and His Stowaway at Park Theatre

There are two sets of people in this world; those that know about Ernest Shackleton’s epic Antarctic expedition, and those that don’t. This play better serves the latter group.

The play covers the period from Shackleton’s departure from South America in August 1914 to the final rescue two years later.

Three days into the journey our stowaway is discovered and sent to face Shackleton in his cabin. Our leader now has a problem – an inexperienced body and an extra mouth to feed. Now, anyone who knows anything about Shackleton knows that he eats problems for breakfast, however, our Shackleton, who is rightly angry at the young lad, also displays flashes of petulance at the situation. The petulance didn’t sit well with me.

Shackleton, portrayed by Richard Ede, puts the stowaway, played by Elliott Ross, to work, treating him somewhat as a slave until he ‘earns’ his rightful place among the crew. Shackleton’s bullying and the stowaway’s naivety creates a tension between the two characters which is slow to thaw. As the script called upon Shackleton to constantly call the stowaway ‘idiot’, it contributed to the ill-fitting air of petulance mentioned earlier.

It’s very ambitious to ask two actors to tell this huge two year story in just two hours. This time constraint means that some events of either sheer terror or agonising hardships have been reduced to a few lines of dialogue. Likewise, the sparse scenery has to represent many different situations. It is to the credit of the cast and director (Simone Coxall) that seemingly every possible permutation of the decking and ropes were used to suggest different locations. Having said that, there seemed to be some scenery changes that were mysterious and possibly unnecessary.

For the most part, the dialogue explains all, and you have to hang on to every word to catch the perils that were faced and overcome. There is a frosting of humour, mainly from the stowaway, to relieve the tension, but the laughs are unpredictable; I laughed when others didn’t and others laughed when I didn’t.

There is also a lyrical element to the script that I didn’t think belonged to the story, particularly when delivered by Shackleton. He didn’t seem to be opening a window into his soul with some of his dialogue, but he spoke in a way that suggested, at times, that he was more of a poet than a man of action.

But man of action he was and the penultimate scene left you in no doubt that he was thinking of his crew and their safety throughout. The ending was genuinely emotional and a satisfying conclusion to the play.

If you know about Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition of 1914, this production may not educate you any further, however, if you don’t know anything about it, this production may be a very good place to start. Buy a ticket, wrap up warm, hang on every word and wonder at the audacity, leadership, heroism and sheer bloody-mindedness of Shackleton – and you’ll also understand why anyone would want to risk being in his company.

Review by Eric Whiting

Shackleton and His Stowaway is on at Park Theatre until 1st February 2020. For more information and tickets visit their website.

If you like this review you might also like my review of The Snow Queen at Park Theatre, Red Shoes at Sadlers Wells and Six.

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