Writer: Andy Dickinson
Director: Simone Coxall
Chronicling the exploits of a heroic yet reckless adventurer in treacherous, frozen conditions, Shackleton and his Stowaway has much in common with the recent regional and West End hit Touching the Void. Strikingly, both productions demonstrate how to conjure theatre magic out of hardly anything at all, but, here, there is a surprise extra ingredient – dashes of cheeky Welsh humour that would not feel out of place in Gavin and Stacey.
Andy Dickinson’s play, which first appeared at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is, as the title suggests, a two-hander. It is a part-fictionalised account of the Imperial Trams-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton aboard the Endurance. Having set sail from Buenos Aires, a stowaway, an 18-year-old lad from Newport, South Wales, emerges from a storage cupboard to complain to the captain about his squalid travelling conditions.
Descriptive storytelling always remains Dickinson’s primary purpose, but the development of the relationship between the two protagonists could earn the play the alternative title of “The Odd Couple On Ice”. The lad hero worships Shackleton, but, as the voyage progresses, he begins to see more of his fallibilities and judges his actions as less heroic than foolhardy. The writer does not delve deeply into either character, nor does he explore their emotional connection, but strong performances mean that there is no real need for him to do so.
The comedy in Elliott Ross’s impudent upstart stowaway contrasts beautifully with Richard Ede’s arrogant and humourless Shackleton. Admittedly, neither character makes complete sense – we ask why Shackleton’s cavalier attitude had not led to him perishing many years earlier and we wonder how the presumably little educated stowaway could speak with such eloquence and knowledge – but lyrical writing and the many qualities of this production cast doubts aside.
Director Simone Coxall’s thrilling staging proves how much can be achieved with just boards, boxes, lengths of rope and, of course, an energetic couple of actors to move everything around. Set against plain, cold walls, onto which images of icy landscapes are projected, vivid movement and sound effects establish the chilled environment and help to tell the story of human courage and conquest of the forbidding elements.
Shackleton and his Stowaway may not seem the ideal escape from a cold January evening in North London, but it warms the heart and grips the imagination.
Runs Until 1 February 2020