McNish, Shackleton, Blackborow and Worsley Pictures: Robert Workman.

Shackleton’s Cat

English Touring Opera

The Albany, Deptford, South London.


What befell Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance in the Antarctic? Why did the crew abandon ship? Whose cat was a member of the party? After floating 1000 miles, how did they make it, in terrible conditions, to dry land? Who lost his toes? And how did Shackleton save all his 28 men despite all the odds?

All of these are vividly answered in a brilliant and remarkable opera for children (though it could also inspire accompanying adults), entitled Shackleton’s Cat.

Part of the Education arm of English Touring Opera, the gripping show features just five performers (four singing, one speaking), and three instrumentalists.

The way the story is told, with all its hazards and death defying travels by land and sea, is utterly riveting. It’s just the kind of stuff to hold young viewers (and listeners, for the music is exciting too) riveted. But it is also an Educational masterpiece.

The sparkling and often amusing libretto is pieced together, strikingly and impressively true to actual records of the awesome, life threatening events of 1914 - 16, by ETO’s Head of Education, Tim Yealland, along with composer Russell Hepplewhite.

This was the team who won credit for ETO’s preceding shows for a similar young audience, Laika the Spacedog, a true story based on the Soviet space achievements in the 1950s, and of equal Educational value, and Borka, the Goose with no Feathers, an equally poignant tale drawn from a story by children’s author John Burningham.

Shackleton’s Cat has been touring right across the country, from Exeter to Perth, Chatham to York and Newcastle, taking in, appropriately, two day showings at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, where the Shackleton library is based; and, closer to home, Cheltenham and Stoke-on-Trent. It surfaced at several venues in London: Vauxhall, Caterham, Canada Water Library in Surrey Quays, and (in this case) the new and attractively designed Albany Theatre, Deptford.


Harry McNish with his precious cat, and closest fiend, Mrs. Chippy

Perhaps poignant is the right word here, for the cat, Mrs. Chippy (actually a male, but described by the wags in the party as the wife of ‘Chips’ or ‘Chippy’ McNish, the carpenter), even though he survives unscathed on the marooned vessel and happily prowls around the freezing, icebound ship, then clings on for a time in the ice camp (where reading and football, smoking and cards are most of the men’s entertainment), does not survive.

Like the dogs, his chances of survival gradually disappear, and he has to be put down. But then that is hardly surprising, given the strenuous labours that are about to face the crew, struggling to get to dry land as the ice below them melts. Realistically, the cat would never make it.

Hepplewhite uses just three musicians, but they are magnificently skilled: mesmerising and exceedingly versatile. The keyboard player, Hannah Quinn, who also conducts as necessary, is fabulously gifted. A lot of the time she positively scampers around the instrument, in glittering scales and unexpected patterns, and that comes to suggest a kind of constant fretting among the crew, following the agony of the ice crushed ship. So far from distracting or purely diverting, there is a kind of energy and electricity generated by Hepplewhite’s keyboard writing alone.

Jonny Raper plays percussion, with a range of gongs and bells struck at apt moments, providing characterful additional commentary, plus xylophone and even more significantly, the spellbinding marimba, deployed to magical effect. The third instrument is the horn (Jonathan Hassan), whose comments and intrusions are constantly urgent or proclamatory, pointed or questioning, but also captivating and reassuring: all of which contributes rather beautifully to the bewitching feel of this scintillating, imaginative score.  


The James Caird rides the stormiest seas in the world

The music gives vital support to the soloists. The cat, for instance, belongs not to Shackleton himself but to ‘Chippy’ McNish, the slightly dour Scots carpenter, who starts the opera in a soliloquy to notably good effect.  Andrew Glover sings the role of McNish with spirit, dash and suitable flamboyance, and with empathy, most touchingly when, after his cat’s expiry, he imagines her travelling with him on the crucial, perilous boat journey. Thus the cat becomes a kind of talisman, possibly a guardian angel, who watches over their perils and keeps harm at bay.

Glover’s singing is enlivening and lucid on its own, but even more impressive is the singing of the vocal quartet. Written in a kind of modern close harmony, the four male voices gel to marvellous, at times haunting effect. They are passionate, urgent, inspired and beautifully together; but there are other bits that are soothing, reassuring, reflective, beautifully balanced. And if the voices contribute resplendently, the music responds and captures the spirit and urgency of events to perfection.

The story, ingeniously adapted and capably researched by Yealland, is told in extended form. First, Shackleton leads a study of maps, a passage that gives ample opportunity for some expressive solo singing as various members of the cast apply for membership of the exhibition.

This audition scene, in Burlington Street, is a hoot, not least when a vision empowers Frank Worsley (sung and acted by Jamie Rock), henceforth ‘The Skipper’, to join the party. Had he not, they all might have died, for it was his navigation in impossible circumstances that enabled the rescue boat journey to succeed.

In late 1914 Endurance sails towards Antarctica, only, we learn, to be trapped by vicious enclosing sea ice. Stuck on the marooned vessel, having tried like mad to free her (cue yet another vivid scene), the men finally have to abandon ship. There’s a famous picture of the dogs watching the ship go down.

They eke out time in tents, dwelling on the ice, with little to entertain them apart from reading, football and listening to the ebullient Frank Hussey’s songs accompanied by banjo; but their futile attempt to drag the boats over humped up ice lead to the one sour moment, when McNish explodes in anger over the dragging of the boats (already vividly depicted by the team), another dramatically staged and sung scene.

They then take off for dry land in appalling conditions.

Shackleton (Ian Beadle sings ‘The Boss’, courageously steering them through all hardships) and the unbelievably skilled navigator Frank Worsley sail a small boat, the James Caird, 800 miles to the remote island of South Georgia, and cross uncharted mountains to reach help. They succeed, and all the men are saved. But had they crossed one day later, there was an ‘iceout’, an appalling snowstorm in which all would undoubtedly have perished.

With a singing cast of four, and one acting role (Matthew Bosley, an attractive performer) are shared around, apart from Shackleton, who is sung with assured leadership and a ringing baritone by Ed Ballard. Australian Dominic Walsh, a really appealing tenor, sings (amongst others) Frank Wild, who is left behind to oversee the men marooned on the island. Worsley, the skipper, who soon leaves to join the boat journey, is sung here by Jamie Rock, who makes of New Zealander Worsley an enthusiastic, enlivening and cheery, determined figure, who contributes at all stages by a kind of optimism.

Some of the detail in Tim Yealland’s production is perfectly attuned for young children aged 7 to 11 (here they were even younger, but still mesmerised, as one could also tell from their probing questions). Bosley plays the speaking role of Perce Blackborow, the stowaway whom Shackleton tells, ‘We’ll eat you first’.Blackborow’s toes are so frostbitten the two ship’s doctors have amputate them. There is a hilarious clang as one by one, they fall into a bucket.


One problem facing director and designer is how to enact the terrible boat journey. Designer Jude Munden has already come up with a massive piece of sheeting, variously lit, to lend the voyage and the waves atmosphere. But then we see a tiny boat riding over the storm torn sea, the sort of lifelike model that would intrigue and amuse any child.

They land on the remote isle of South Georgia, and as if by magic Munden turns the sheets into lofty and dangerous mountains, which three of them have to cross and which no one has ever traversed before. We see three miniature figures atop an awesome ridge (later called ‘Trident Ridge’), and then sliding together down 1,000 feet to land safely in snow.

This is just one of many points where the text is utterly true to the actual story. It was a terrible risk, but they had no choice. Another is when they hear the factory hooter, which tells them they are nearly at the whaling station of Stromness, where help will surely be at hand. This kind of accurate detail is one of the things that makes Shackleton’s Cat so vital and true to life. True, because it actually happened.

So well plotted and well devised are the earlier bits (the preparation for the voyage, the ship’s demise, the enforced sojourn on the ice), all quite effectively extended, that the boat journey and mountain crossing seem to pass in no time at all. But they are fun, and skilfully done, and presented in such a way as can only mesmerise and delight young children. The device used is wooden puppets, which ride across the screaming sheets of the waves, and then another bit of puppetry, where the threesome make the near fatal traverse.

It’s very haunting, and equally effective. We genuinely feel we are there, with our lives at stake and the 22 marooned men depending on us, engulfed by wind, ice, sea and deep snow.

So all in all, Shackleton’s Cat is scrupulously honest in handling one of the great survival and rescue stories in maritime history, witty and amusing at all the right moments, and a fabulous piece of entertainment for a both young audience and those older watchers, friends and relations, for whom the Endurance story is perhaps unfamiliar and the Shackleton saga unknown; and even absorbing for those who know this miraculous tale of skin of your teeth escape, and relish seeing it so masterfully re-enacted.

A clever piece of educational drama by any standards, and another hit for the ever-imaginative English Touring Opera.

Roderic Dunnett


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