Talking Movies

November 25, 2011

Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley’s acclaimed one man show returns for another sell-out tour, playing short runs at the Olympia Theatre and the Civic Theatre.

Dooley has been performing this solo tour de force all over the world since 2003. Originally conceived as a 15 minute ‘Living History’ piece for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich it grew to its present length after the publication of Michael Smith’s 2002 book Tom Crean: Unsung Hero. We’re told at the outset that Crean never wrote a diary, unlike Scott and Shackleton, so that he was largely forgotten in histories of the polar expeditions of his two iconic commanders until the last decade. Dooley creates for us a version of the man from Annascaul, deriding Corkmen in a broad Kerry accent, mixing stoicism with wit, and demonstrating the unwieldy gear worn by the polar explorers as they dragged cumbersome supplies across the ice.

It’s surprising to see the much ridiculed Captain Scott being depicted with so much affection as a brave taciturn man, who sends Crean back from the final suicidal assault on the pole by muttering about Crean’s bad cough rather than telling him directly that he can’t go on. The personalities of the ship are well conveyed, from the unpopular officer being chased by a leopard seal who finds his subordinates cheering on the seal, to the young officer who sensationally admits on the trek back from Scott’s final base that he made a navigational mistake, and what’s worse made it three days ago, before belaying Crean’s obvious impulse to retrace their steps with an equally suicidal decision to keep going, and ski down an uncharted slope. The later discovery of Scott’s tent and the frozen bodies of his final team makes for an unexpectedly moving first act finale.

The second act relates the ill-fated voyage of the Endurance, which showcased Crean’s courage and remarkable physical stamina. Shackleton, the wry commercial mariner from Kildare, is less cripplingly class conscious than Scott of the Royal Navy, and his priority is keeping his men alive once their ship is crushed by pack-ice as their original simple plan is scuppered by ruinous events. Dooley downplays Crean’s heroism in volunteering for an expedition in a modified lifeboat that had about as much chance of succeeding as Captain Bligh finding dry land after being thrown off the Bounty. Instead he’s adamant he volunteered because trying to keep peace between mutineers and loyalists on the island base would have driven him demented.  Shackleton seriously states “I’m afraid I don’t know much about sailing” as they sail away towards South Geogia, but somehow Crean survives to marry and open his own pub; so that every morning he starts working at The South Pole

A fascinating insight into unsung heroism at the ends of the earth, recreated with warmth and humour, this is top notch theatre.

4/5

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