Shackleton’s Carpenter, Jermyn Street Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

In 1914 Sir Earnest Shackleton set off to cross Antarctica via the South Pole, but the mission was cut short when one of the two ships froze in an ice floe that eventually crushed it. Miraculously, the men were able to seek help due to the ship’s carpenter repurposing the life boats to make them suitable for long journeys in turbulent water. That carpenter’s name was Harry McNish, and in his dying days on a New Zealand dock, he relives his memories of that voyage.

McNish was one of only four of the crew who were not recommended for the Polar Medal, and in Gail Louw’s one-person script, he still holds a grudge. It’s fair – we see him destitute and living on a docked lifeboat, half-cocked on whiskey, and visited by visions of Shackleton and the crew. Performed by Malcolm Rennie as an ornery fellow rantings and raving through most of the show, he challenges Shackleton – then dead and buried on South Georgia Island – on his decisions over the course of that fated voyage. Rennie’s  eventual softening is rewarding, though more vulnerability earlier on would make him come across as less of a working class, Scottish stereotype.

Louw’s story takes time to bed in, is clumsy and rambling at times, and the script could easily shed 15 minutes – mostly of exposition. The death-bed framing device is a predictable one, though drawing attention to the poverty in which McNish later lived and died is an important part of the show’s aim to raise awareness of McNish’s contributions to the mission that gave Shackleton so much acclaim.

Shackleton’s Carpenter runs through 17 August in London, then tours the UK and Ireland.

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