‘Shackleton's Carpenter’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Shackleton's Carpenter, Jermyn Street Theatre
© Anna Urik

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Heartfelt, well-researched one-man-show about the man who built Ernest Shackleton’s lifeboat

When we meet Harry McNish, he’s as much of a wreck as the ship that history remembers, while largely neglecting him. While The Endurance’s captain, explorer Ernest Shackleton, is now a figure of almost romantic legend, the carpenter who built the lifeboat that saved the stranded crew of that vessel, crushed by ice during its trans-Antarctic voyage in 1915, never got a medal for his efforts.

Unsurprisingly, Gail Louw’s one-man ‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’ – set decades later, on a New Zealand wharf – finds an elderly McNish (Malcolm Rennie) still mightily pissed off about his treatment by posterity. Erupting out of a tarpaulin-covered lifeboat, swigging from a whisky bottle and complaining about piles, he’s fallen a long way. As his mind fragments, a dead Shackleton visits him.

Louw’s obvious historical research pays off in the play’s sometimes tragic counterpoint of class and privilege. Fame comes far easier to the ‘intrepid’ Shackleton than to McNish, with his poor Scottish upbringing and lack of connections. Louw also shades in a Shackleton whose optimism bordered on pathological and whose camaraderie brooked no disagreement.

‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’ was the second to last play Tony Milner directed before he died in 2015. This production is dedicated to his memory. He and Rennie bring a welcome, almost comic, chippiness to McNish as he takes full advantage of his hallucinating state to say everything to ‘The Boss’ he couldn’t before. The play sparks in the flashes of anger and grudging respect.

‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’ does many things well – including delving into McNish’s post-traumatic stress as he vividly recalls mountains of aquamarine ice – but it could do with being sharper and tighter. While it’s only 80 minutes long, it feels becalmed at times. And when the momentum of the writing isn’t there to support him, Rennie’s performance shades a little into bluster.  

By: Tom Wicker

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