Following their sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, Stolen Elephant Theatre have headed south to London to once again share the story of the Endurance and Ernest Shackleton‘s attempt to reach the South Pole. Shackleton and his Stowaway offers an intimate portrayal of two men who braved the harsh elements and inhabitable environment of Antarctica – and found themselves fighting for their own survival.
It is truly remarkable to think that the story told onstage is true. That a young Welsh lad only 18 years of age decided to hide on board the Endurance in order to meet his idol seems implausible – and yet that’s exactly what happened. Actor Tom Taplin’s portrayal of The Stowaway – whose real name was Pearce Blackborow – offers a cheeky sailor who, while in awe of everything Shackleton has achieved before now, is not afraid to speak his mind. He is an excellent counterpart to Edward Cartwright’s Shackleton, a stoic figure whose reputation heavily rests on the seasoned explorer’s shoulders. There is a great dynamic between the two: one that not only provides the majority of laughs within the production, but also some vulnerable moments of doubt and desperation towards the end.
The pair have the rather intimidating task of telling the story of the Endurance and the 28-month ordeal its crew (coincidentally, also of 28 men) endured. Writer Andy Dickinson makes a wise choice in limiting his cast to only two of those crewmen, while also making sure to acknowledge the key players in the story – though disappointingly failing to acknowledge those who didn’t make it home. Having to depict men who, for the most part, are subject to below-freezing temperatures is no easy feat; there is only so many ways you can act cold onstage. Cartwright and Taplin offer as much variety in their shivering and hand-warming as they can, but for the most part they are hunched over with their arms crossed. It comes so early in the production that even the added layers of clothing do little to emphasise the bitter temperatures. This question of balance also applies to the interactions between the two men; it takes a long time for Cartwright’s composure to break, which is a shame because when it does, it makes his heroic efforts all the more impressive. The Stowaway’s constant complaining and questioning of Shackleton’s decision-making also feels premature, his grievances about the cold and dire situation verging on being annoying. These are minor issues, though are what stop the production from excelling.
These are not the only challenges Stolen Elephant Theatre face in reimagining such an incredible event onstage; nonetheless, the whole team behind Shackleton and his Stowaway do an admirable job in overcoming them. Throughout Shackleton and his Stowaway, maps are projected onto the floor and back wall of the stage, allowing the audience to visualise the journey being made by the Endurance. Enrique Muñoz’s visual aids are particularly useful when the Endurance is trapped in the ice floe, and the crew have no choice but to tread through hundreds of miles of snow and ice.
At 90 minutes long, this is a little longer than your average Fringe show. Admittedly, it does lose the tightness the earlier scenes in the production have, as Shackleton documents the ship’s course to Antarctica. Yet, this is partly due to the company’s determination to do justice to Shackleton and his crew and they offer every single details of the expedition that they can afford in 90 minutes. As Shackleton details his rescue attempts, you cannot help but wonder whether this is all a dream in the young Stowaway’s head, and worry that Shackleton did not actually survive the trip. Ending with the two men together again though brings the story full circle, and is moving in seeing the bond the two men have formed in their shared experience.
The final moments visually charting the expedition once again, interspersed with photos of the real crew, is a touching tribute to the real men who risked their lives on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. Shackleton and his Stowaway is an honourable depiction of a moment in history that should not be forgotten.