*** DEBUG END ***

Music review: Shackleton’s Cat

15 June 2018

Roderic Dunnett sees an opera for children about Shackleton

robert workman

Shackleton and his exhausted men have their first glimpse of safety, in Shackleton’s Cat

Shackleton and his exhausted men have their first glimpse of safety, in Shackleton’s Cat

SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON, the famous polar explorer, was brought up in the Church of Ireland, in County Kildare, by a devout family. When he grew up, he subscribed, seemingly, to no particular denomination. Yet his religious feeling was strong, and his sense of the spiritual intense. As his friend and biographer suggested, he had a personal faith: “His God was the God of nature, of the stars, the seas, the open spaces.”

He believed passionately in the persistence of the human spirit, and of a world progressing towards goodness. “He never doubted there was a higher power than our own, not an omnipresent Almighty, but a great universal order.” On his headstone, when he died, aged only 47, were inscribed the words “Entered Life Eternal”.

Shackleton’s story has been told in film, and the occasional play, but also in an opera, designed for children, but apt for adults also, and staged by the inspired and creative company English Touring Opera. First performed in 2015, the opera, Shackleton’s Cat, has been revived this spring.

I saw the performance at the Albany Theatre, Deptford. It involved four singers, a fifth speaking role, and three instrumentalists delivering a superbly contrived (and, for children, enticing) score by Russell Hepplewhite. The work focuses on the story of the Endurance, the ship that would become trapped in the polar ice, forcing its crew to flee for their lives to a remote island, from which Shackleton miraculously rescued them.

Before they set out, Shackleton (Ed Ballard) was given two copies of the Bible by Queen Alexandra, one for himself and one for his crew, inscribed “May the Lord help you do your deeds and guide you. . . May you see the works of the Lord and all the wonders of the deep.”

In the many readings aboard the icebound ship, verses from the Bible played an important part and were a source of inspiration, not least to Shackleton himself. Regretfully jettisoned to save weight, the Bible was retrieved and smuggled home by a religious Scottish seaman, Thomas McLeod, and thus preserved; Shackleton had torn out and kept the Queen’s dedication.

The opera’s story, fuelled by a very accurate and vivid text by the director Tim Yealland, begins then, and gives a shivering version of the beleaguered crew, the long days of boredom, the horrendous escape from the ice, and the hair-raising tale of Shackleton’s journey aboard the lifeboat James Caird, and crossing of the uncharted steep mountains of South Georgia, the island destination that they reached, against all odds, thanks to the brilliant navigation of Frank Worsley (Jamie Rock).

Shackleton believed fervently in the power of Providence, and often quoted scriptural texts to the crew: hence, to a degree, his religious leaning became clear: “I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation.”

But he also tore out a passage from the book of Job: “Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who has gendered it?” The ice, depicted by glowing sheeting, naturally plays a key part in the opera. Burberry-like khaki costumes by the designer, Jude Munden, convey the feel of rough, exhausted seafarers and perishing cold.

The importance of Shackleton’s loyal second-in-command, Frank Wild (Dominic Walsh, a beautifully expressive tenor), is finely exemplified. When they flee the breaking ice floes and make a freezing escape to desolate Elephant Island, one of the crew, Perce Blackborow (Matthew Bosley), has three toes amputated: a grim detail, but very amusingly told.

Shackleton’s marked spiritual sense and trust in Providence can never have been greater than on the 800-mile boat journey seeking help, and the dangerous crossing of the mountains. Looking back on the miraculous transit, so nearly a disaster, Shackleton uses markedly spiritual language. He believed unfailingly in an intangible guiding force.

Indeed, all three men believed that a protecting fourth person was walking alongside them, a mystical notion that later inspired T. S. Eliot. Ed Ballard’s commanding Shackleton, a forceful and yet benevolent leader, manfully led both the boat journey and the near-suicidal mountain crossing.

The way the boat (a vivid miniature model) bravely battles the waves, and the clever way the trio are depicted here (a model also) sliding down a thousand feet, had the watching children agog. Indeed, the mountains themselves were ingeniously evoked: glowing white sheeting aided by artful lighting can be surprisingly atmospheric.

The cat was not Shackleton’s, but the beloved companion of “Chips” McNish, the dour ship’s carpenter, upon whom all their lives depended. When his cat (here lifelike, furry, and characterful) is inevitably put down, he explodes at Shackleton. Their confrontation, a highlight, draws an impressive performance from Andrew Glover as McNish.

The music is for keyboard (Hannah Quinn), percussion (Jonny Raper), and French horn (Jonathan Hassan). Each is a glittering performer, and Hepplewhite’s score that is magical, artful, and electrifying, and evokes the providential also. Together with the polished acting, he makes this show glisten.


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)