Aidan Dooley’s one-man play DISCOVERING ANTARCTICA masterfully brings to life the underappreciated heroism and adventures of explorer Tom Crean.

5 out of 5 stars

Ask anyone to name a great explorer of the early 20th century, and they will probably name either Scott (of the Antarctic) or Shackleton; they will not mention Tom Crean, the Irishman who was the only person to serve in three of the greatest expeditions ever mounted and was awarded the Albert Medal for heroism. This is a great shame, as without doubt his story is one of daring on a grand scale, of unimaginable feats of bravery, and he deserves to be as well recognised as his officers.

In DISCOVERING ANTARCTICA, Aidan Dooley, who both wrote and performs the show, does not just tell the story of Tom Crean but lives it. He is a storyteller par excellence and the audience hangs on his every word. You could hear a pin drop as Dooley takes us through the highs and lows, the humour and the pathos of Crean’s experience without making it a pastiche or a dry history lesson. In his hands, Tom Crean’s life unfolds, the words dancing to the audience like sparkles on the sea itself. Dooley is simply mesmerising. It is beyond theatre and is an experience. The tales he recounts are more than any Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up.

The audience is taken on three expeditions: the ill-fated Discovery, which was abandoned 460 miles from the South Pole; the Terra Nova, which saw the race against the Norwegian Amundsen to get to the South Pole and which saw the death of Scott; and the final Endurance led by Shackleton where Crean served as second officer. These expeditions should be familiar to anyone interested in exploration history, but in this retelling, we see them not from the eyes of an officer but those of a lower rank. There are comments berating the officers and then great sadness at the loss of Scott. The loyalty to the commanding officers by Crean is evident and his despair at finding Scott’s body is dealt with in a sensitive but powerful manner.

This one-man play has been played globally, including in Antarctica itself, and has won plaudits galore, which are all richly deserved. The story of Tom Crean is one that should be written on an equal footing in the history books and not overlooked, especially given his 36-mile solo walk back to camp across the Ross Ice Shelf, which saw him awarded the Albert Medal for bravery alongside his colleague Lashly by King George V and which has been described as the finest single act of bravery in the history of polar expedition.

This stage work brings the exhaustion, hard work, complete grit and no-nonsense attitude of the expeditions to life, and with it, we see a window on history that would otherwise be lost. The conditions of such expeditions are not glossed over, the arduous and repetitive nature of the tasks is well portrayed, and, above all, the remarkable and astounding achievements of Tom Crean and others like him are finally given a voice.

A powerful voice that should resonate down the decades to remind us all what true determination is. Anyone who has the slightest interest in history, maritime or otherwise, should see this one-man tour de force. It is simply breathtaking.

DISCOVERING ANTARCTICA: HEROIC TALES OF SHACKLETON, CREAN & SCOTT was performed at Sale Waterside Arts on 26 March 2024.