This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
South Georgia, a dot in the furious South Atlantic, must be a remarkable place: a British territory since Captain Cook’s landing in 1775, saviour of Shackleton’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1916, and, from 1904 to 1965, a key hub of the world whaling industry.
A Cinema In South Georgia, a new piece of ensemble theatre by Jeffrey Mayhew and Susan Wilson, explores the lives of four Scottish whalers, who found themselves on the island over the Christmas of 1959, thousands of miles from their home in Eyemouth. Developed from first-hand accounts from the men themselves, it paints a charming picture of a life lived in isolation, capturing the camaraderie, the humour and the evocative bleakness.
Flitting about in time and location, and back and forth between Edinburgh and the Arctic Ocean, A Cinema In South Georgia introduces us to Robbie (Frazer Smilez), Fraser (Jonathan Combe), Archie (Mark Vevers), and Jim (Euan McIver). The four men chat, joke, squabble and fight throughout, frequently pausing to sing a raucous shanty, to act out some episode from their past, or to talk on the history and traditions of the whaling industry.
Vevers and McIver are convincing as old hands Archie and Jim, their thick Scottish brogues authoritative and expressive in equal measure. Combe and Smilez are similarly laudable, the former for his simmering aggression, the latter for his browbeaten annoyance at being ordered around by the others.
The proliferation of detours and departures mean there is little progression to the piece, but any potential stagnation is dissipated by the fascinating subject matter. Funnier flashbacks – Robbie first ‘becoming a man’ in Aruba being a notably amusing example – are mixed with educational digressions on the procedure of catching, killing and processing a whale and on the men’s illegal distillation of spirits, and more.
There are sobering moments too, particularly when the four men’s backgrounds are revealed. The unsurprising revelation – that many men were forced to work long hours, separated from their home for months on end, purely to keep their families afloat – is nicely contrived.
Throughout, the performance is aided by actual footage of whalers in the South Atlantic, projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. The grainy shots of swelling waves, tossing, and men viscerally stripping a caught whale on deck are undeniably arresting.
This is, above all else, an extremely interesting production. The acting is proficient, if not particularly outstanding, and the structure sound, but A Cinema In South Georgia’s real strength is in its engaging evocation of a way of life now long gone.