I am always happy to travel North, north, north…
Three men prepare to set off for the North Pole in a hot air balloon. Yes, that’s right, a hot air balloon. The scientists amongst you might groan straight off but if you’re like me then every bit of you is tingling with excitement. What daring, foolhardy but magnificent, glamorous daring? Yes I’ll follow you, sir, in your marvellous contraption with its newly patented system of sails and rope. What could possibly go wrong? Quiet in the back there.
For an hour and fifteen minutes, New International Entertainment want to take you with them on an incredible, picaresque journey destined for shining, unequalled success that can only end with a great banquet, held by the Tsar of all Russia.
As we enter the small box room space of the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter the cast are handing around hot cups of strong Swedish coffee. The more extrovert among us call out for tea. We are, meanwhile, serenaded by a woman on a guitar who we later discover is Knut Frænkel, she has a moustache to prove it. The other woman, handing out coffee, is none other than Nils Strindberg, photographer, fiancée and second cousin to August Strindberg. She too has a moustache. The crowning glory and chief adventurer is Salomon Andrée, physicist, engineer and amateur balloonist; he seems to have grown his own moustache.
Yes, you did hear right, amateur balloonist. It transpires that the good captain has not tested his great patent.
The three start by playing music, a double bass, an accordion and a guitar. They could carry on with this sombrous, eastern folk for a whole evening if my consciousness was the only one to please but it isn’t. They begin a dramatic narrative that spreads over three short acts. But they aren’t acts, they’re stages or chapters. The three explorers go from enthusiastic national heroes to dying, deranged fools in the snow; eating polar bear brains and drinking the King of Sweden’s champagne.
“Ice to the East, Ice to the West, Ice to the North and Ice to the South” is their maddening refrain.
For me, this is a dream of a story but for some reason there is something missing. Not enough to ruin the evening or to lessen some very amusing and well-judged moments but one goes away with the sense that more could have been done. Sometimes lines were fluffed and sometimes jokes felt flat or too obvious.
Some of the most moving moments are physical. A projection screen is used to show us the hopeful young men preparing their balloon with sails for their maiden flight. These pictures are taken by Nils. Later the projection scene shows us the sky-ship come down and the men examining the wreck. The elements of physical theatre work well here as the subjects of the photographs take their positions.
The room is full of theatre students. First years. They are exuberant, chatty and immediately engage the actors when they come in who enjoy the interaction. This is a perfect theatrical audience. The people here will know what you’re about. They need no former knowledge of the story, they are likely to laugh at a joke because it has been well constructed.
There is a dark humour here which is not easily married with the guffaws heard in the front and back rows. A twiddle of a moustache might send them howling but a man’s blackened foot, however unlikely the depiction, should send a hush over one. A folk memory of so many dead in those icy regions. North, south. History is cluttered with fallen men in the pack ice.
Earlier in the year I went to see a Tinder theatre production called, the Last March. Scott, another ambitious man, set out to be the first man to the South Pole. We are all familiar with his fate. It’s an old story now. There was no new and exciting details like Andrée’s balloon but it still managed to hold itself up better. It kept its pace and its humour was more convincing. It had a very similar dynamic of three actors playing two lackeys and one glorious leader.
If I were to recommend a play for you to see, it would be the Last March. I say this reluctantly, sadly as I watch the three doomed Swedes of my imagination, picking out their sombrous tune, with only a wicker basket between them and thousands of miles of cold, unforgiving sea ice. I knew they could have done better.