Shackleton’s Carpenter (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Shackleton’s Carpenter (Jermyn Street Theatre, until August 17th)


Unsung heroes have the power to inspire, change our perspective and rewrite history. In a touring and powerful one-man show now receiving its West End premiere one unsung hero’s story is told to try and redress some of the balance for him – and perhaps countless others consigned to the footnotes of history.

In Gail Louw’s 80-minute play, Shackleton’s Carpenter, we hear the cry of a thousand souls who lie unremembered through reputation, class division, rancour, resentment and failure through the voice of one brave man whose actions and knowledge helped save the lives of a crew on the famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Harry McNish was the shipwright on board the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s vessel which was involved in the attempt to make the first trans-Antarctic land crossing in 1914-17.

McNish, originally from Port Glasgow in Scotland, was a master carpenter who defied Shackleton’s orders at a crucial moment and played a vital role in ensuring the 28 crew of the ship were saved after an accident left them stranded on pack ice with little hope of survival. By repairing and adapting a boat that had already carried them from the Weddell Sea to Elephant Island, McNish enabled six of the crew to travel a further 800 miles to South Georgia to seek help for those left behind.

Most of the crew members were subsequently awarded Polar Medals but, in spite of his courage and resourcefulness, McNish was one of four not thus rewarded (apparently because of his insubordination to Shackleton) and went on to live a life of ill health, traumatic stress and destitution miles away from home.

Alexander Macklin, the ship’s surgeon, would later write, “of all the men in the party no-one more deserved recognition than the old carpenter….I would regard the withholding of the Polar Medal from McNish as a grave injustice.” A campaign continues to get the medal awarded to McNish posthumously.

Playing in the small Jermyn Street Theatre space this is the first West End calling point for a fascinating and telling drama which continues on a UK tour this autumn.

It’s the perfect venue for this rant against an heroic adventurer who refused to listen to expert advice about transporting small boats across the ice (a key decision that might be looked at more fully), who decided that all the animals on the trip should be destroyed (including McNish’s precious cat) to conserve food, and who finally failed to recommend his shipwright for the medal given to everyone else.

Reduced to sleep under a tarpaulin in an old lifeboat on a wharf in Wellington, New Zealand, and earn food and drink by begging and telling stories of the expedition to anyone who would listen, we see an embittered McNish haunted by ghosts of the past, not least by that of “The Boss”, Sir Ernest Shackleton himself. The carpenter is initially friendly towards him, even offering him swigs from his treasured bottle of Scotch, but as the play progresses his real feelings towards the explorer who at best acted in a foolhardy and reckless way become more angry and embittered.

Painting an expressive portrait of the ice floes of the Antarctic through vivid description and eliciting compassion and understanding for a flawed but beguiling character, Malcolm Rennie commands the space as McNish. From his startling entry through to despair, outrage and indignation Rennie brings the carpenter to life and demands that we see him as a human being able to rise above the incompetence of a temperamental boss who looked down on him.

It is one of those extraordinary tour-de-force performances that captivate throughout, injected with warmth and ardour. Rennie never rests, twitching and emotive even in the silence. He is at ease portraying all parts from the resentful McNish to contemptuous crewmates and even dancing penguins. Such is his skill, this production might even have been included in the theatre’s recent Portrait Season, so clearly are the character and the situation drawn through his performance.

We are afforded insight into the hostility between McNish the outspoken Socialist with deep religious beliefs and Unionist Shackleton the iconic and intrepid pioneer, both magnetic and moody, who at least realised the error of his stance.

Given that so many of the crew later went on to share their own views about the wisdom of Shackleton’s decisions and the importance of McNish’s experience, it would be good to have some of that expressed so we know we are not just listening to the incoherent ramblings of a madman who simply felt he was betrayed and cold-shouldered.

The play was directed by the late Tony Milner when it first appeared in 2015 and this production is dedicated to his memory. It’s a great piece to be remembered through, allowing the audience to cut through the rants and ravings of a man driven mad by memories and a sense of injustice, evoking sympathy but also an impressed wonder at this ordinary man who achieved the extraordinary.

Harry McNish is saved from obscurity in this intense solo show that speaks volumes about the little man triumphing over adversity. The best outcome would be that the play finally earns him that elusive Polar Medal, enabling his family – and history – to remember him with the pride he deserves.

David Guest

Image, Anna Urik

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub