Tom Crean: History on Stage

Aidan Dooley’s Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Thursday 27 March 2014, Christchurch

When Ireland and Antarctica converged in Christchurch in late March, one man stole the night: Tom Crean, as played by Aidan Dooley. The three polar pyramid tents outside the Heaton School auditorium set the scene for an icy adventure, but belied the body heat generated by a sell out crowd. We were going on a journey to Antarctica, but parkas were best left at he door.

The play, which premiered at the Medway Fuse Festival in 2003, tells the tale of Tom Crean, a lad from Kerry who served on three Antarctic expeditions under both Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Crean is one of the many men from the Heroic Era who simply did his job and then faded into history, eclipsed by the Heroes that gave the age its name. Thanks to Dooley, there has been renewed interest in Crean in recent years. His little known story is now one of the most famous adventure tales in Ireland, where the play has gained something of a cult following. Sell out crowds are usual, while the first question many Irish nationals have following any lecture on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is ‘what about Tom Crean?’

If anyone in Thursday’s audience was wondering the same thing, they were in the right place. Dooley spins a yarn that takes the audience to the ends of the earth, transporting us back to the sepia days of Antarctic Exploration. Act One sees us following him South on the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, recounting his disappointment at being sent back home as Scott and four others pushed on to the Pole. Through a combination of pub-style storytelling and exhausting reenactments of the slog, we learn of the hardship encountered, the sledding used to descend from great heights down a glacier, and Crean’s astonishment at finally making it back to the hut alive. Dooley has a way of getting under the skin of his characters and really capturing what makes them tick. He seamlessly weaves elements of the older Crean, who was publican of ‘The South Pole,’ with flashbacks of his younger self, and peppers his performance with local Irish references and questions for the crowd. This is no ‘sit back and relax’ tale, but a raucous performance full of energy and banter.

Act Two sees Crean return to Antarctica on board the Endurance, under Ernest Shackleton. We hear the story of the ship becoming trapped in the ice and slowly sinking, but it is the details that make this version come alive – the way the lights in the ship flashed on and off, on and off as she slipped below the water, as if to wave farewell. Dooley’s first person account of the boat trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia also brings home the human side of the famous feat of endurance: a particularly lively impression of Worsley attempting to take a sighting of the sun in the midst of heaving seas has the audience clinging to their seats for dear life.

Dooley was first drawn to Crean’s story when he learnt the explorer had been awarded the Albert medal for bravery following Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, and the play grew from there. These days it is a full-blown theatrical sensation. The play may be called Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, but it is written and performed by Aidan Dooley, Master Storyteller: he deserved every one of the ovations he received at the close of the show. It was a warm night, but with images of the Ross Ice Shelf and Patience Camp in mind, the polar pyramid tents outsides elicited a shiver as we passed them on our way back home.

The Christchurch performance of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer was hosted by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

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