Shackleton and his Stowaway: Park90 London
  Richard Ede and Elliott Ross: photograph Elena Molina

 Andy Dickinson's Shackleton and his Stowaway at London's Park90 commemorates the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-16. It recounts the experiences of the ill fated vessel 'Endurance' but more focuses on the relationship between its leader, Ernest Henry Shackleton and stowaway 18 year old Perce Blackborow. Harking back to the disaster in early 1915, when the 'Endurance' was trapped in ice, later to sink, we are told how Shackleton's crew had been forced to abandon the ship, to live on floating ice and face despair. In April 1916 three small boats eventually reached Elephant Island. Not one member of the expedition died and this was due to the heroic efforts of Shackleton and his powerful resolve and leadership.

Shackleton's account was published in 1919. Now, directed by Simone Coxall, the Stolen Elephant two hander with Richard Ede as stoic Shackleton and Elliott Ross as the cheeky stowaway plays out a version of these events from the perspective of the two titular protagonists, exposing the strength and determination of survival. Why did this cheeky young fellow stow away? Why simply to meet his idol, the man he so looked up to and revered. In monologue, dialogue and action we observe the vulnerability of these two polar characters and the shift of their relationship as it develops. We feel the biting cold and turbulent surf which are achieved in no small part by the physicality of the pair but also complemented by the stark lighting, powerful sound effects and effective projections (Enrique Munoz Jimenez) against the bleak backdrop. Poignantly these include a vision of the actual crew of the 'Endurance' who experienced the trauma of this Trans-Antarctic expedition, causing us all to intake a solemn breath as we were faced with a history that perhaps most of us were hitherto unaware.
 
Shackleton and his Stowaway relies heavily on the spoken word, written and performed in lyrical style which offered a poetic grace and drew us into the situation of the ill fated crew. At times the address felt like a lecture, as Ede made direct contact with the audience but with such conviction and clarity that we could not help but hang onto his every word. Despite the 'wild wilderness' and the cruel, unforgiving majesty of the bleak landscape, there was a wonder in his delivery at the profound essence of Nature. Shackleton laid no blame on the elements for their situation but gasped at the intensity. To the visual swell of the rollers, the swaying of the actors as they lost their footing, the infinite white of the snow and the sounds of strong gusts and gales, we too felt the ferocity of movement, so much so that I rather wished I had not had a coffee beforehand and would willingly have reached for some travel pills.

Through Coxall's considered direction and the lyrical rhythm of the writing, plus of course the credibility of the performance, this was a strong production and was deserving of the applause it received at the close. Stolen Elephant have extended the length of the play to two hours, with an interval. In honesty, it was a relief to have that short break from the suffocating terror and we could settle once again into Act II, which offered more of an insight into the two characters.

Perhaps Shackleton might have at first appeared selfish, enjoying his folly and being reckless, but as the play progressed Ede convinced us that this explorer was a strong and caring leader who would protect his men at all costs, risking his own life on more than one occasion to rescue them from their doom. I could understand how his men must have regarded him and followed him unconditionally. As it quotes in the programme: 'When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton' (Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist).

Park 90 is an intimate space and full use was made of the small stage area, which was set between two adjacent sides of the audience. We were immersed in the performance but were not actively involved, rather more we were invited to be observers and to be informed. And because of the honesty of the delivery as told by Shackleton (Boss) and the young stowaway whom he harshly labelled 'idiot' but to whom he softened as time went by we were spellbound. With creative use of ropes to form the rigging and boxes as bare furnishings, sledges and boats, there was likewise a visual credibility to the production which we shared and enjoyed from start to finish.


Listings

Venue: Park90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
Dates: running until 1 February 2020
Age guidance: 12+ (although I would suggest 16+)
Performances: Mon-Sat evenings: 7.45 pm; Thurs/Sat matinees: 3.15 pm, relaxed performance Thurs 30 January at 1 pm.
Prices: Standard £18, concessions £16.50, Group tickets available.
Booking: www.parktheatre.co.uk or 020 7870 6876 (10% telephone booking fee).