Moby Dick

Herman Melville, adapted by Phil John and Simon Harvey Williams
Darkstuff Productions
SS Great Britain, Bristol

Ahab on Deck
Queeqheg & Ishmael

Set on board the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Darkstuff Productions has adapted Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a promenade, and partly immersive, experience.

Full of biblical foreboding, we are guided through the dockside in Bristol by a chanting preacher (Gerard Cooke). Stepping across chains, ropes and uneven cobbles, we encounter former schoolmaster, Ishmael (Ed Browning), looking for a room at the local inn. He barely settles down to an uncomfortable night’s rest when he is alarmed to find himself being nudged along to share his bed by Queequeg (Sonal Fricker), a stranger covered in tattoos with an unfamiliar way of speaking and customs.

This is how we meet the first of our fellow crewmates, as at first Ishmael and Queequeg and then the entire audience are all recruited to join the whaler, Pequod (‘played’ by SS Great Britain), for a 166-day journey (or in this version 80 minutes) to capture whales in some of the world’s most treacherous seas.

Firstmate Starbuck (Gerard Cooke again) and second mate Stubb (Amy Harris) start handing out the jobs to the audience / crew, scrubbing the decks, pulling rigging and folding the sails on the open deck of the ship. Cleverly using sea shanties to set each scene, we set off on the first stage of our journey. Conspicuous by his absence, so far, is the ship’s Captain, Ahab.

As the crew guide us above and below deck, discharging their duties, newcomers Ishmael and Queequeg (and the audience) catch asides and half conversations of disquiet among the ship’s officers. Finally, we are led back on deck to the very front of the ship where we see Captain Ahab himself (Sophia McLean) under the main mast. A fiery leader, instilling confidence in the crew to make money for the owners on a great adventure. Yet the mumbling among the senior crew grows more and more ominous.

Darkstuff Productions manages a very entertaining evening aboard the SS Great Britain. The difficulties and complexities of managing a promenade performance in such a big space and mostly in the open are not always overcome but they do have some very successful moments. The sound effects accompanying the whale spotting are not always heard and it did feel at times we were being moved around for the sake of it.

The flip side of this was we did get to see more of this extraordinary ship, with some audience members nipping off for a better peak which was well rewarded. But when it worked, such as the final moving scene, it was most satisfying.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips