The Professor of Adventure

Peter Macqueen

Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

From 19 March 2016 to 05 April 2016

Review by David Upton

Millican Dalton was a treehugger long before the term was invented.

How else would a man, who lived alone in a cave in the Lake District, measure the seasons—and nature’s age—than by wrapping his arms round the trees each year to gauge their growth?

There’s that same sense of intimate embrace about this captivating play dedicated to his memory. It’s written and performed here by Peter Macqueen, though it might be more accurate to say he inhabits the role, the lifestyle and indeed the mind of this Lakeland eccentric in two hours of gently immersive theatre.

Dalton spent the latter part of 40 years of his life outdoors, occasionally holed up in a cave in Borrowdale, that deceptive vale between the beauty of Derwentwater and the looming crags around Honister. Never a recluse, he guided mountaineering groups on to the fells, and led a simple life of self-sufficiency.

Macqueen makes all this into a monologue, delivered in the suitably cave-like dimensions of the venue’s studio space, to an audience who essentially become one of his climbing parties.

His captive crowd are treated to his philosophy, his wit, his demons and—just occasionally—his curmudgeonly ways. By this time he was in his 70s so he can be allowed the inner doubts that come with dotage.

It’s all set between the first snows of winter 1940 and the harbingers of spring 1941 at a time when one man’s freedom to live as he pleases may be fairly set against that freedom being fought for around the world. But Macqueen does not labour the point, other than in his character’s letters to Churchill (seated in his own subterranean war room in London). Nor does the writer/actor dwell on Dalton’s back story. You learn more about that in the programme notes.

Instead he treats us to a wistful, whimsical and quietly wonderful couple of hours spent in what might well approximate to the company of a man communing with nature.

Lit pretty well by the firelight from Martin Johns’s authentic set design, there are intensely-moving moments, and the occasional nod to Wordsworth, in his talking to an imagined butterfly, or in how the rainwater dripping into his home becomes a symphony of sound. And in between it all, plenty of thought-filled silences.

Like his previous one-man show here, Old Herbaceous, Macqueen is taking the play on a tour around fairly remote parts of the North. Millican Dalton would have liked that.