Making their debut at the Festival Fringe, Stolen Elephant Theatre bring to life one of the great voyages of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration in Shackleton’s Stowaway. In 1914, young welshman Perce Blackborow stowed away on Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, despite having been rejected as a crew member. Only eighteen years old, he lacked any experience and was thought to be of little use to the crew and would probably be a handicap. His friends, who had been taken on, hid him in a locker where he was discovered after three days at sea.
This play will be a welcome contribution to the Antarctic archive, and a chance to relive Shackleton's momentous voyage.
This is where the story begins. He now has to face Shackleton. Unable to stand he is berated by Shackleton and publicly humiliated in front of the crew. However, an ever-increasing bond develops between the two as the journey progresses, though Shackleton frequently reminds Blackborow that if times become hard he might well be cast overboard or even be served up for dinner. The play progresses chronologically through one of the most remarkable journeys of the period in which everyone survives, though in Blackborow’s case it’s comes at the cost of a few toes.
Craig Poole plays the Stowaway in Andy Dickinson’s play and uses his piercing eyes, lyrical Welsh voice and endearing smile to charm Shackleton and engage the audience. Carl Thompson, as Shackleton, gives a series of monologues that chart the course of the expedition and reveal his personal concerns in an appropriately earnest manner. Together they engage in banter that provides an insight into life on board, the concerns of the crew and the very success of the expedition.
It is difficult to identify where the burden of responsibility lies in a production that lacks a certain air of credibility. Enrique Muñoz's direction, Dickinson's script, and the performances on stage do not work together as smoothly as they might. Historically, the narrative is true to events, yet it is hard to believe that the relationship between the two protagonists would have been so informal and convivial as the play suggests, despite Shackleton’s reputation for fun and openness and the authenticity of Perce’s cheeky repostes. Given the enormous difficulties the journey encountered, the perpetual repartee and jocularity of Dickinson's dialogue feels unrealistic. There are laughs, which at times make this play feel like a comedy. Given the conditions they were subjected to, such a demeanour surely would have been impossible to sustain.
For those who love this period of history the play will be a welcome contribution to the Antarctic archive and a chance to relive the momentous voyage in a lighthearted setting. For other theatregoers it might prove to be something more of an endeavour.