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Helen Keen: The Primitive Methodist Guide To Arctic Survival - Fringe 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Helen Keen has oodles of charm, but while her Arctic show is – inappropriately enough – full of warmth; it’s too light on content, and more importantly, jokes to be worth the early-morning expedition.

Great Victorian explorers, larger-than-life and fearless in their determined quest to explore the unknown to test the limits of their endurance, are reduced to the level of quirky characters of children’s fiction. The audience sit with white paper hats on their heads to represent icebergs, a shadow puppet show plays out the plight of the whaling ship Diana Of Hull as it is trapped by icebergs, and even cannibalism is discussed with the jaunty casualness of Famous Five adventure.

The audience is roped in to offer suggestions, while one chap ends up wearing some colander-based headgear laden with home-made ‘scientific’ equipment for a purpose that made sense at the time, but escapes me now. More and more this is seeming like kids’ edutainment.

That image isn’t helped by what she describes as her Boris Johnson accent; it’s all very jolly hockey-sticks, but actually the product of speech therapy. She is from modest Hull stock, where seafaring runs in the family. It was her ancestor, Charles Overy Cobb, who inspired this show, after she learned of his treacherous 19th Century Arctic expedition.

The ship’s doctor kept a journal, which Keen reads from, which offers an all-too brief glimpse of the reality of these adventures. If you want to learn more, a bibliography is issued to every audience member – typical of the good intentions that underlie this hour.

Keen is an engaging guide, obviously full of enthusiasm for her subject, but in her, erm, keen-ness to instil similar interest in the audience has overlooked the need for gags, relying instead on gentle whimsy to see her through. It’s not quite enough.

Review date: 28 Aug 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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