Theatre FootNotes for August 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

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.

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