Tom Crean was born in 1877 in Kerry in Ireland, and by the age of just 15 he had joined the Royal Navy. At the turn of the century, he served on the exploratory voyages of Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton across the freezing wastes of Antarctica. Along the way, he gained the Albert medal for bravery. If you're like me, you've probably never heard of Tom Crean before, even though the names Shackleton and Scott are synonymous with exploration, particularly in connection with the South Pole.
This one-man show was written by Aidan Dooley who has also been performing it for the past 10 years or so. It's now been seen by around a quarter of a million people and deservedly so, because Crean is one of the unsung heroes of exploration who deserves wider recognition.
The sound of gently rolling waves and a simple set with a sledge in the background sets the scene for the start of the play. Aidan Dooley enters with a flickering lantern which symbolises the low-tech nature of the journeys Crean undertook. From this highly evocative entrance, Mr Dooley proceeds to give us some of the background. First, for those (like me) who don't know one point of a compass from another, he distinguishes the north from the south poles – Arctic from the Antarctic. Other facts begin to paint a picture of the overwhelming force of nature that Crean and his fellow explorers had to cope with, such as temperatures as low as -90 and winds over 80 mph. And we learn that to get to the South Pole and back took three and a half months, covering a distance of some 1800 miles. We're also told about the dangers of sweat freezing inside clothing, the huge crevices which had to be crossed and an 800 mile sea journey that Crean undertook with Shackleton when their ship was crushed by ice and their only hope of survival lay in traversing the ocean to get to dry land. It's all mind-numbing stuff which is difficult to comprehend, but makes Crean's achievements all the more impressive.
Aidan Dooley describes Crean as a man with enormous energy and vitality. Those qualities are combined with humour, wit and humility which made Crean popular among his colleagues and with the leaders of the expeditions. Mr Dooley maintains a cracking pace throughout the piece and since he wears the traditional explorer garments of the day throughout, the tell-tale results of his energetic performance begin to reveal themselves.
This highly educational and informative play is storytelling at it's best. Though the actual events are enough in themselves to provide a great story, that's not sufficient to ensure a compelling piece of theatre. What Aidan Dooley achieves in his finely crafted writing and exceptionally vivid performance is to put that story in context while giving us a real insight into a man that history has overlooked.