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Review of ‘Terra Nova’ by Ted Tally

Directed by Paul Ackroyd

Review by Patrick Neylan

When a cold February blast blows up North Street, it’s comforting to snuggle into the BLT auditorium to witness the story of a group of men suffering in a considerably colder climate than you are. And a gratifyingly large number of people turned out to see Terra Nova, a dramatised account of Captain Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911.

Those feelings are tempered by the knowledge that you’re watching actors in heavy, Antarctic clothing under the heat of stage lights. One imagines the headline: “Scott of the Antarctic collapses with heatstroke”. It’s an amusing image, but the cast deserve credit for convincing the audience that they’re frozen when they’re surely sweltering up there.

So, how does a playwright dramatise the story of five men walking and talking – about, well, who knows what? (Spoiler alert: we don’t know much of what they talked about because they all died.)

Playwright Ted Tally’s solution is to present Scott’s semi-delirious dream states and flashbacks: a presentation to the Royal Geographical Society, his courtship of and relationship with his wife Kathleen and, most tellingly, his imagined conversations with Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who won the race to the pole.

Michelle Ashton’s simple set design of flats set an angle painted in polar white and blue constrained the acting space, creating an effective sense of claustrophobia as the frozen wastes closed ominously around the doomed party. Howard Binysh’s lighting design added to the effect with ice reflections and the Southern Lights in the air.

Rob Chambers was an assured Scott, adding to the reputation he gained as Manningham in Gaslight as an English gentleman – although Scott is decent but flawed, whereas Manningham was an outright bounder and an imposter to boot. Scott suffers from the English disease of wanting to win in the right way, whereas Amundsen has a clearer idea of how the ethics of the English playing fields are misplaced in this savage wilderness: “Playing the game means treating your dogs like gentlemen and your gentlemen like dogs.”

Chris Cullen’s Amundsen is a powerful presence and the perfect foil to Scott. A sense of foreboding grows as Evans, a cheery soul afflicted with fatally misplaced optimism that was perfectly pitched by Allen Sproule, starts to succumb to an injury sustained at the start of the expedition. Scott sympathises and lets him continue, fatally slowing the party down, drawing Amundsen’s frustration and contempt when he appears in another vision:

“Everything is a tool – a boot, a sled, a dog – and a hand, an arm, even a man! If it breaks down you throw it away and you march on! It’s brutal, yes! And it’s ugly. But anything else is sentiment and it will kill you.”

Chris judged Amundsen’s character admirably: a rival who nonetheless regards the brave men who tackle this brutal wilderness as a brotherhood. He wishes Scott and his party well, having already been the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage where he also left the bodies of poorly prepared Englishmen in the frozen wastes.

There was a perceptible warmth in Scott’s scenes with Kathleen, played with strength, humour and above all love by Laura Gamble: she is a woman who knows her own mind but tellingly knows Scott better than he knows himself. He was born for the pole: it’s what sets him above the mediocrity of others.

The rest of the polar party – Evans, Wilson, Bowers and Oates – kept their distinct characters well defined, which was difficult in a script that sometimes pushes them into the shadows behind Scott’s obsessions with the Pole and with Amundsen.

Paul Marshall did well to present a professional and uncompromising side to Oates, whose character has been mythologised by his remarkable sacrifice in contrast to Evans’ selfishness, while Mike Azzopardi’s Wilson was a calm conciliator. Jake Lane’s Bowers was more detached and self-contained. Despite his lack of experience, he showed confidence in the company of more experienced actors, and I look forward to seeing more of him on our stage. All four of them did well to stay in the background for long periods, which is always difficult, and it made their moments in the spotlight all the more telling.

One of the most effective pieces of staging came straight after the interval: another dream sequence, with the party enjoying a banquet, with fine wines served by Chris Cullen; now a suitably aloof waiter. The way the dining table was dismantled to become the sledge again really brought home the unrelenting despair of the party’s situation. The whole scene was brilliantly done.

The only incongruous moment was the use of Country & Western music at the start – if it had any relevance, then it was lost on me. But that shouldn’t detract from a fine night’s entertainment that was well received by the audience on the night I saw it and on the night I tended the bar.

Paul Ackroyd’s direction enabled the play to flow and retain its sense of dramatic momentum as it switched between dream states and frozen reality. Importantly, the play picked up pace in the second half as the impending catastrophe loomed. Paul in collaboration with designer Jess Andrews also did a fine job in providing a printed programme full of detail and information on the expedition, communicating his own enthusiasm for the project and giving the audience much to enjoy on the night and much to think about afterwards.