What do you do when you’re a bunch of unemployed German guys with time on your hands between visits to the job centre? Recreate Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole in your friend’s attic, of course.
Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole is a tale of escapism in the face of hopelessness. It is revived at the Arcola Theatre by director Stephen Unwin.
Slupianek (O-T Fagbenle) is the cocky, cool leader of the gang and Buscher (Mark Field) his slightly thuggish right-hand man. Seiffert (Andrew Gower) and Braukmann (Sam Crane) complete the core quartet with their own individual brands of neurosis.
Seiffert appears to be on the brink of suicide after reading a book about the ennui of millionaires - if they are bored and unhappy what hope is there for the normal folk?. But Slupianek has been reading too - about Amundsen’s 1911 polar expedition; a "fairytale" which he suggests they act out against the backdrop of the pristine white washing hung by Braukmann’s wife (Emma Cunniffe) in their attic.
Puffer jackets, tent and camping stove dubiously acquired, the characters take turns to narrate segments of the story, reading from Slupianek’s book or leading the others in various parts of the adventure. Buscher at one point attempts a mutiny, suggesting that Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition would make a more suitable topic "because we do failure better"; a hint at the grimmer realities of their lives beyond the attic.
The play sits well in the brick warehouse-like space of the Arcola, which is put to particularly good use in a scene that sees the group pace out the final 179.45km push to the Pole to great comic effect.
All four are convincing and their well-pitched energy extracts plenty of comedy from the text. Linguistic styles varying from street to puns to semi-verse are used to good rhythmic and atmospheric effect and the techno music covering the scene changes helps to maintain a gritty yet upbeat tone throughout the 90 minutes.
The focus of this production is firmly on escapism. Does it miss an opportunity to juxtapose playful distractions against grim reality? Maybe, but by not making itself too "worthy" it remains a snappy and humorous show