Quick question: Antarctic – top or bottom? Thus Irish actor Aidan Dooley as Tom Crean, the relatively unknown explorer on expeditions to the South Pole with Scott and Shackleton, in somewhat ingratiating warm-up mode at the top of his one-man show at the New End.
Tom Crean (1877-1938) was a hardy sailor, a real tough nut from a little town near Kerry, who won the Albert Medal for bravery, having made a solitary trek of 36 miles in dreadful conditions during the Terra Nova expedition to rescue two comrades. That was on the second of his three Antarctic expeditions before he returned to Kerry after the First World War and ran a public house. He died of a burst appendix.
Dooley presents a genial, soft-spoken, smiling man who looks as though he’d have trouble running a bath, let alone navigating an ice floe. He comes across as more of a primary school teacher than a national hero, with his neat little examples of what happens in below-zero cold (don’t forget your mittens, kittens) and how to dress warmly and sensibly without breaking into a sweat that might then freeze the hairs off your chest.
With his woolly hat, pipe and oil-lamp, Crean witters on like old Bernard Miles leaning on the garden gate, except that he has a lovely lilting brogue and a twinkle about him that makes it very hard to complete a later transition to horrific heroics. A faint air of “museum piece” in Katy Eldridge’s design is reinforced by the solid presence of an ice-sled of the sort Crean and Co drove across the glaciers with their teams of dogs.
There are some nice digs at Corkmen which must go down very well in Cork, and a chilling account of discovering the bodies of Scott, Oates and the rest at the end of the adventure. But you never know what Crean was really like, nor what happened after Terra Nova – the ending is arbitrary – nor indeed what were the big differences between his first expedition under Scott on Discovery in 1901 and on Terra Nova ten years later.
Still, Dooley has had considerable success with his show since he first performed it in New York in 2003, travelling from the Dublin Festival to the Edinburgh Fringe (in 2006), with seasons in Adelaide, Florida, Malta, Dubai and Geneva. Tom Crean may have got stuck in that Antarctic groove, but his ghost has been varying his destinations quite a bit lately.