The first sign of a proper return to theatre appears in KIDSWEEK, the misleadingly-titled month (!) of August when children can get to see one of a range of top West End shows Free when they visit with a full-paying adult.
Promoted by Official London Theatre, the promotion happens across the whole month, with lots of shows to suite every taste being available.
This year there are no add-on activities as in previous years -owing to the continuing caution over Covid -but there are online activities that your youngsters can engage in instead.
SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER at Jermyn Street Theatre – Mon 12th August, 75 minutes
Suddenly awoken from a nightmare, Harry McNish bursts out from under a tarpaulin covering a lifeboat. McNish was Shackleton’s Carpenter, and this is his story. Malcolm Rennie is an old dependable at places like the Finborough where his expressive face and physicality are welcome additions to period plays. Here, though, he is the whole show, recounting for 75 minutes the particulars of Shackleton’s perilous 1914/15 Antarctic expedition in which McNish was instrumental in saving the crew’s lives. We are plied with information to colour the portrait.
Now at the end of his life, destitute, alone and unable to work, McNish lives along the wharfs in New Zealand, reliving his glory days and most terrifying hours. He is visited by the spirit of Shackleton (“the Boss”) and tracks back over their time together. In exploring McNish’s compromised loyalty, there seems to have been some kind of personality clash between himself and Shackleton, which might explain why McNish was derided for being a pessimist and nicknamed “the old carpenter”. Further antagonisjng Shackleton by defying him and suggesting a different course of action to the inflexible “Boss”, McNish effectively saved the whole crew. It may have been this which influenced McNish’s not receiving the Polar Medal (which almost every other crew member received), but we shall never know.
Rennie creates a haunted but flawed character. A loner, still turning over why he was “one of the boys, but not one of the boys”. His enormous skill as a shipwright saved the entire crew but cost him the use of his hands, evermore crippled by the legacy of intense work in unforgiving temperatures. Both McNish and Shackleton were obviously very strong characters, but the point in the story where Rennie plays them both is a bit unfocussed and fleeting, so that one wonders why it’s there at all. There’s a rather nice finish as all the crew appear to him and one feels a pivotal life moment, but so much has gone before was stretched out that it can only partially reclaim the interest. A respectful biography by Gail Louw, the more interesting parts are where he muses on his wives and the little girl he wanted to call him Daddy; but for me, these moments are rather too few and far between.
Lantern-eyed Rennie is an accomplished actor who pulls out every trick in the book to keep things interesting, but it felt rather like he himself was stranded. He could have had much better support than this. How much light and shade would an interesting lighting design and even more, a sound design have brought us into McNish’s fevered recollections. It was disappointing to have neither of these stage assets to help the story along, further increasing the pressure upon Rennie to deliver the goods entirely alone. Aside from anything else, to have given it some visual interest. This is yet another show which could be recorded for radio without changing a word. Honestly, I must say that it became a little repetitive and was rather too long for my taste. The mysteries remain unanswered, but at least Shackleton’s Carpenter belatedly has his time in the limelight, given respectful dimensionality by Rennie’s full-blooded perfromance.
IN BRIEF Intense black comedy dissects unrealistic expectations of modern life through detailed performances and direction
“I’m so fat”
“I’m so ugly”
“I’m so stupid”
“I’m so old”
Punched up by a throbbing light, an hypnotic barrage of negativity prefaces Declan Greene’s play which deals with the attempts of two lonely, desperate forty-somethings to find a real connection through our modern ultra-judgmental cyberworld.
Both characters have been cornered by life. She’s a nurse with a shopping addiction, a debt mountain, out of control kids and a secret fear. He’s an IT guy in a sterile marriage and addicted to online porn. They hook up through a dating app. The audience endures with them an excruciating, conversationally-mashed meeting in a bar followed by a flailing attempt at casual sex.
His downloading of (the title’s) porn onto his work laptop get him fired and he panics, returning to her where reluctantly she gives him shelter. Through an unexpected later event they are finally able to come together at the close of the play, and for a moment at least, they can be open with one another.
Greene’s script produces laughter of many kinds, sometimes at the most unexpected times. Sometimes, it’s the laughter of recognition; there’s something here that we can all relate to, and it’s not easy. The audience I was with were vocal and up for the ride. Early on there’s a very funny but uncomfortable verbalisation of text-message foreplay with spoken punctuation, emoji-speak and time-lags played out in real time, which works really well. And occasionally, the dialogue is piercing (“Just someone”, she pleads into thin air).
Denying his characters’ right to names, Greene cuts through them, examining the layers of denial and desperation which have accumulated. Scenes in which feelings and sensations are discussed, mostly of shame and disorientation, are starkly effective.
Theatrically, the characters are isolated by space and lighting. Where the two characters do interact, their cut-aways, speaking frankly to the audience, work to draw us into their messy situations. In fact, the characters seem to talk more to the audience than each other, underlining their life in isolation, aided by the lighting design by Chris McDonell which was also amusing in its depiction of orgasm (or not), and boosted by Lex Kosanke’s sound design.
On Cory Shipp’s clever, simple set comprised of three separate spaces, we are given fragments of her backstory to put together, as Greene stokes the underlying tension. Just what is she terrified of, and why has she got £3,000 in cash in an envelope?
The climax of the play brings some apparent truth in its wake and the possibility of a little light in the midst of all this darkness. And any play with as smart a curtain line as this one is good with me.
The acting is first-rate. Cate Hamer expertly captures her character’s wrung-out desperation, living at the tips of her nerve endings, the caring part of her nature at odds with her reactions when provoked. Her backstory weights the play towards her, and her studied performance easily supports that load. Matthew Douglas charts his character’s obsession with youth and age, predatory bravado and sudden decline with skill. Both performances are enriched through Gianluca Lello’s sensitive and incisive direction.
Nobody’s perfect, as they say. But this play reminds us that the contemporary pressures to expect perfection of ourselves -and of others – are not only unrealistic but deeply self-destructive. We haven’t seen the last of Greene’s play, I am sure.
EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY plays its final performance on Saturday 10th August at 7pm at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Tickets and information here