Tom Crean - Antarctic Explorer
Written and performed by Aidan Dooley
White's Tavern, Belfast
Aidan Dooley's Tom Crean is fond of reminding the audience that no one had ever heard of him before Guinness decided to exploit his adventures in an advertising campaign. There is a slightly surreal moment when a fictional Tom Crean laughs at the depiction of another fictional Tom Crean but the audience seems to appreciate the absurdity. Kenneth Branagh's television drama Shackleton may have raised the profile of previously obscure Antarctic explorers but Crean is still rarely heard of beyond his native Ireland. Unlike Shackelton and Scott, Crean did not keep a diary; as Dooley notes, he had better things to do in the bitter Antarctic winter. Yet Dooley seems to relish his relative lack of source material.
Although the play begins with a brief description of the Antarctic and a vivid description of the equipment and clothes Crean used, it generally follows a clear chronological path. Dooley takes the audience on a remarkable journey through Crean's life, from his decision to join the British Navy to his involvement in three expeditions; Captain Robert Scott's "Discovery", the famously ill-fated "Terra Nova" and "Endurance", Sir Ernest Shackleton's disastrous attempt to cross the Antarctic continent.
Unlike the Guinness version, Dooley's Crean is not a silently brooding presence but a garrulous, quick-witted Kerryman. Dooley laughs at Scott's terse, unemotional diary entries, preferring to recount Crean's experiences in as much detail as possible. Yet the play is not simply a Boy's Own adventure. Dooley is careful to make Crean into as well rounded a character as possible. He doesn't shy away from talking about the bitter disappointment Crean felt when Scott decided not to take him on the final ninety-mile leg to the South Pole. He depicts Crean as a deeply likable character, modest about his own achievements but fiercely loyal. Whereas his senior officers may have been interested in glory, Dooley suggests that Crean simply enjoyed being part of an expedition.
The stage is dominated by the most essential piece of equipment in Antarctic expeditions, a large sledge. However, Dooley sensibly eschews an elaborate set. He either stands inside a large frame which supports the sledge or sits on a makeshift box, roughly covered with fabric. Nevertheless, his costume is accurate to the very last detail.
Tom Crean - Antarctic Explorer may not be the most innovative play ever staged but Dooley recognises that the story can be just as important as the performance. Despite clocking in at a running time of two hours the play never drags. Admittedly, Crean's story is compelling in itself, yet Dooley has an enviably natural style of acting which completely captures the audience. He never falters despite the huge amount of dialogue, and seems to be genuinely comfortable in front of an audience.
In Crean, Dooley creates a convincing portrait of an accidental hero. Yet the play's strength lies in not taking itself too seriously. Dooley's love of his subject is infectious and the Belfast audience who gave him a standing ovation would certainly agree.
May 14 & 15 Town Hall Theatre, Galway
May 18 & 19 Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick
May 21 Backstage Theatre, Longford
May 22 Roscommon Arts Centre
May 26 St. John's Theatre, Listowel
May 27 Friar's Gate Theatre, Killmallock
May 28 & 30 Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford
Robert Tantich reviewed this production at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, in 2008
Reviewer: Claire Simpson