The Lowry, Salford
Local writer Ian Winterton's first original script since his award-winning Sherica has its roots in his own father's visit to Antarctica in the early 1960s, where he spent two years looking after huskies.
The story sees young researcher Daniel (Adam Grayson) following his lifelong dream to spend two years in Antarctica studying emperor penguins, but it happens at a time when he has just started a relationship with Lottie (Gemma Paige North)—and when he arrives he receives a telegram to say she is pregnant.
However he stays on as his relationship crumbles, joining an odd collection of people led by happy-go-lucky Quentin (Keith Faulkner) and including nitpicking Timothy (Alastair Gillies) who is never seen without his clipboard, Daniel's companion on the journey south Jim (Kieran Moloney), nervous wireless operator Adrian (Richard Patterson) and Scottish doctor Jock (Zach Lee).
This is 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the fear of a nuclear war extends even to this remote corner of the earth. Further evidence that man's influence has extended to this last natural wilderness is in the discovery by Dan of DDT in the penguins he is dissecting.
Winterton says in the programme that he hopes he has honoured the people of the British Antarctic Survey, and it is clear that this is a work that tries hard to pay tribute them and portray some of the difficulties that they faced.
He also has several themes that he has tried to work into the play which really boil down to how man's influence has infiltrated the whole planet and threatens its continued survival, at least in its current form. The Cuban Missile Crisis portrays this threat in a potentially catastrophic way, but the seeping of poisons into animals that live thousands of miles from human civilisation shows a more gradual process that is more difficult to stop.
The chief problem with the play is that what we see on stage is Winterton's tributes, issues and extensive research, not an interesting story. Contemporary facts and ideas are expressed by characters to one another in rather stilted dialogue in order to get them across to the audience. Current news, music and films are mentioned prominently in a rather heavy-handed attempt to set the period, included an over-long section acted out by the men from the end of the film Some Like It Hot.
The character of Lottie comes across merely as a device to throw complications at the main character, as recommended on many writing courses. However her character is too thinly-drawn and her story too superficial to really matter to the audience, and each time she drifts onto stage it just holds up the rest of the play.
Trevor MacFarlane's production, designed by Bethany Wells, makes interesting use of a mast and a large white plastic sheet, although not all of the ideas that use it look as slick as they could. However there is some rather odd staging. The opening scene of Lottie on the 'phone lasts barely a minute then is followed by a scene change that is at least as long instead of using the crossfades used extensively later on. There are some simultaneous scenes where the scene currently in focus is placed behind a scene with far more actors in it that we are supposed to ignore, making it difficult to see.
The characters are distinctive and different and portrayed well by the ensemble cast—with whom you have to feel sorry in their polar gear when the audience is fanning itself with programmes due to the uncomfortable heat in the Studio.
It is clear that, due to the family history it contains, this is to a large extent a labour of love for the playwright, but, as in other areas of life, love can blind us to the wider issues and to how others view the object of our affection. In trying to share a passion, he has forgotten to rope us in with a really good yarn.
With the restrictions imposed by the 24:7 Theatre Festival, Winterton produced a taut, fascinating hour of theatre, but this sprawling two and a half hours struggles to keep its audience's attention.
Reviewer: David Chadderton