The Conquest of the South Pole

Critics' choice
© Simon Annand

In the '80s, when Stephen Unwin directed a young Alan Cumming in Manfred Karge's enjoyably bonkers portrait of jobless lads in the Ruhr, UK unemployment topped three million. It's easy to see why the director has revived it: it feels particularly pertinent in Hackney, where long-term youth unemployment rose by more than 75 per cent last year.

But the good news is that Karge's surreal, colourful short, in which the gang divert themselves from despair with an imaginary polar escapade, is one of the least depressing plays ever written about joblessness and it will be a shocking injustice if any of Unwin's gifted new cast find themselves on Jobseeker's Allowance any time soon.

OT Fagbenie swaggers delightfully through the play's many absurdities as Slupianek, the charismatic but borderline cowardly leader of the highly unlikely lads. Andrew Gower remakes suicidal sidekick Seiffert as an enjoyably morose Northerner. Mark Field gives burly, sensitive support as Buscher, the gang's muscle and heart. Sam Crane brings subtlety to henpecked Braukmann, the only one with a job and family. Emma Cunniffe gives a perfectly pitched performance as his wife, La Braukmann, a chip-shop Carmen whose biological clock is ticking. And recent graduate Chris Ashby gives a near-wordless performance of exceptional sensitivity and tenderness as Frankieboy, a slow-witted kid whom Seiffert treats – in a lovely touch – like his pet spaniel.

Like Scott's ill-fated polar expedition, Karge's play falls just short of its target: 90 minutes isn't long enough for this fun piece of magical socialist realism to explore more than a few fascinating crevasses of male friendship. But the cast bring out all the verbal rhythm and flair in Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis's neatly alliterative translation, which swings along like a spoken word update of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.

When they tramp together around the auditorium in comically fattening stolen puffa jackets, for the full 179 steps required to complete Scott's mission, Unwin's vivid show conquers the audience as well as the Pole. A brief return to jobless reality afterwards is an anticlimax. But warm, funny collective moments like this are what you live in hope of – and not only in the theatre.

Event phone: 020 7503 1646
Event website: http://www.arcolatheatre.com
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