Review: Shackleton’s Carpenter at Jermyn Street Theatre

PUBLISHED: 15:09 05 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:09 05 August 2019

Malcom Rennie in Shackleton's Carpenter. Picture: Anna Urik.

Malcom Rennie in Shackleton's Carpenter. Picture: Anna Urik.


A few years ago there was a revival of interest in Frank Hurley’s remarkable black and white images of the Boy’s Own sounding Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Malcom Rennie in Shackleton's Carpenter. Picture: Anna Urik.Malcom Rennie in Shackleton's Carpenter. Picture: Anna Urik.

In November 1915, Shackelton's ship Endeavour was crushed by the immense power of the ice: 28 lives seemed doomed but the ingenious ship's carpenter Harry McNish improvised a rescue vessel and all souls survived.

We join Harry some years later. Now destitute and living under a tarpaulin in a life- boat in Wellington, New Zealand: it's tea and whisky for Harry for breakfast.

In Gail Louw's extraordinary play, Malcolm Rennie brings McNish to life and offers thumbnail sketches of many of the fiercely tough and good looking men in Hurley's photographs.

Without his tenacity and skills his shipmates would certainly have perished. Despite this, shockingly, he was one of only four survivors who were not awarded the Polar Medal. Although McNish tries to shrug off the sleight, it still wrankles as do all the other petty distinctions between classes and Shackleton's shooting of his cat, Mrs. Chippy.

We learn about Harry's tragic early relationships and the brutality of trying to earn a living; the privations and struggle for survival on the voyage; the leadership strengths and tactical failings of the "Boss" Shackleton.

Rennie is brilliant, not least for a faultless delivery of the eighty minute monologue. There are elements of real humour (his dancing penguin is magnificent!); his imaginary conversations with The Boss and other crew mates naturalistic and convincing.

In many ways a very sad work, Shackleton's Carpenter is also an insight into an extraordinary man doing amazing things in extreme circumstances.

Theatre rarely gets better.

4 Stars.

Continues until Saturday, August 17. More details and tickets here.

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