Shackleton’s Carpenter by Gail Louw. Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1 to 17 August & then on tour. 4****. William Russell.

Shackleton’s Carpenter
By Gail Louw.
Jermyn Street Theatre, 1116B Jermyn Street, London SW18 6ST to 3 August 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 3.3opm.
Runs 70 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2875
Review: William Russell 31 July.

Ernest Shackleton was the great British polar explorer, the man cheated by fate out of being first to reach the South Pole by Amundsen at a time when it seem the imperial right of Britons to be first at everything. He gained even greater glory when his 1914 expedition to Antarctica was trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea. His ship, the Endurance, was crushed and the expedition had to survive living on the pack ice. Shackleton’s leadership resulted in all the 27 members of the crew surviving, making first a trip in dinghies to Elephant Island and then the 17 day one to South Georgia. But one man on that journey played an essential role in ensuring these journeys were possible and, when the polar medals were duly dished out, did not receive one – he was Harry McNish, the ship’s carpenter. This injustice has been the subject of controversy and Gail Louw has now devised a one man play giving McNish’s side of the story. A Glaswegian, he was a very difficult man to get on with, and fell out repeatedly with Shackleton after his cat was shot on Shackleton’s orders on the grounds that it could not survive the conditions confronting them. McNish went on to a career in the navy and ended up destitute in Wellington, New Zealand, living rough on the dockside. He died in 1930.
Louw has crafted an apparently well researched monologue and Malcolm Rennie brilliantly creates a tormented man reliving the past, one filled with a sense of injustice. It boils down to story about class. Posh folk lead, the plebs follow and if things go well it is due to the posh folk. Shackleton may have had all the leadership qualities attributed to him and did inspire his crew, but he almost certainly knew little or nothing about making the small boats the expedition used to reach safety seaworthy and by all accounts there was a bitter falling out with his difficult carpenter. That non awarded polar medal appears almost like an act of revenge.
The play holds the attention, bu the problem is McNish is so quarrelsome that, while realising he is a man cruelly ill treated, one never warms to him. He is a victim in a sense of his own personality as well as of the way the class system of the day operated. Holding audience attention alone is always something to admire and given the fact he has to create someone difficult to empathise with – even if one empathises over the way society treated him – Rennie does a magnificent job given that the play consists of one unlikeable man in a small boat ranting a lot while he swigs from a whisky bottle.
Tour de force is a much abused cliché, but Rennie’s is one such performance.
Harry McNish: Malcolm Rennie.
Director: Tony Milner.
Production photographs: Anna Urik.

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