Park Theatre – until 1 February 2020
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is more extraordinary than many fictional adventure stories, and Andy Dickinson’s two-hander focusses on the relationship between Shackleton and the 18 year old Welsh teenager who wouldn’t take no for an answer and stowed away on board the Endurance.
With a minimalistic set that becomes more and more convincing representing different parts of the ship, and just two actors, there needs to be a lot of exposition to keep the audience abreast of where the explorers are and what has happened, with Shackleton’s contributions resembling a captain’s log and the stowaway’s a long list of complaints. But Dickinson keeps these passages light and interesting, interspersing them with glimpses of Shackleton’s love and inherent need to explore the polar region as he waxes lyrical about the light and waves.
As the expedition travels further and further into danger until the ship is trapped in the ice pack, the contrasting personalities of the two men are a regular source of conflict and comedy, although the Stowaway is a little reminiscent of the deferential “comedy” Welshman in Dad’s Army at first. The play is energised as soon as the voyage stalls, with much more focus and jeopardy. In fact, the first act could easily be cut by a good half hour to get us to this point faster, without losing any vital information or characterisation to create a much tighter and even more engaging play.
Enrique Munoz Jimenez’s evocative video design, coupled with the subtleties of Pablo Baz’s lighting and Dominic Brennan’s sound, create a wonderfully chilly atmosphere that transports you to the sharpness of the Southern Ocean. Under Simone Coxall’s direction, the actors convey the struggle of movement over heaving decks, ice floes and mountains effortlessly with just simple ropes and tension cords.
Richard Ede’s Shackleton is straight out of Ripping Yarns, arrogant and utterly convinced of his ability to succeed but never losing that romantic sense of adventure. Elliot Ross is lots of fun, even if he comes across as the ship’s Jonah as the problems of the voyage are mostly described by him. A word of warning to any Welsh attending – grit your teeth and ignore the accent. The stowaway is from Newport, but his accent visits every Welsh region, often during one word. Fair play, it’s a tough accent to crack, and Ross’ attempt pleased the English in the room. The two actors make a fine double act and the second act in particular is a triumph of storytelling, with the other members of the expedition always being mentioned to remind us of their endeavours and hardships.
This evocative account of ridiculous bravery and comradeship is a fascinating and thrilling tribute to these extraordinary men.