The Swedish polar explorer Salomon Andrée died in 1897 while leading an attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon. Physical theatre company Dead Rabbits use this fascinating true story as the basis of a show that fuses comic silliness with a more emotional core, or at least that’s what it’s attempting to do. It’s not always successful in this respect.
The company, which won the 2019 Les Enfants Terribles award, uses Peepolykus-style clowning, reams of parachute silk and ukuleles to tell the story of Andrée’s doomed expedition with his fellow explorers Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, as well as that of Strindberg’s fiancée who 30 years later still hopes her love will return.
Kasia Zaremba-Byrne’s production features some well-executed and inventive physical sequences, with Kate Rigby’s design effectively creating the harsh Arctic landscape. But the shifts between broad comedy and the more emotionally complex material – the men’s growing realisation that they won’t survive, that they are destined to perish together, along with scenes of Strindberg’s grief-stricken fiancée languishing in a psychiatric hospital – are misjudged and, at times, crass. It’s just too big a leap tonally and they don’t clear it – they don’t earn the emotional pay-off.
Though the show contains some enjoyable episodes, it’s hard to shake the sense that they’ve missed an opportunity to really make something memorable from this fascinating and tragic story.