The cast assemble on stage, chatting with the audience. Behind them the backdrop of an industrial landscape. Suddenly the ‘Last Ship Band’ begin the first of many rousing melodies and we are off, in to a story of love, loss and redemption.
The music and lyrics are penned by 16-time Grammy award winner (44-time nominee!), Sting. The show is inspired by his 1991 album ‘The Soul Cage’ (though most of the songs in the musical are original works) and his own childhood experiences growing up in a Shipbuilding community. It tells the story of a tough community amid the demise of the shipbuilding industry in Wallsend Tyne & Wear, with the closure of the town’s Swan Hunter shipyard. It is a proud account of love, community and a great act of defiance.
Throughout, the music is excellent, the vocals of the cast and the playing of the onstage Band are exceptional. Each of the songs is deeply rooted in the folk tradition with the foot stomping tunes driving the show forward like the engine of a giant ship, with the occasional slower paced ballad to calm the pace. That being said, midway through act two I felt as though all the songs were blurring together in to one, folky mash-up!
Director Lorne Campbell’s book is largely good, with moments of comedy, contrasting with the harshness of life within the community. Having said that, there were several moments during the evening where I had to cringe – not least of which when level-headed Shipyard foreman Jackie White (played brilliantly by Joe McGann) dies, yet his team gallantly finish building the ship with Communist exuberance!
Performances are excellent across the board, with well written characters which rarely stray in to the realms of caricature – one exception is the overly ‘Thatcherized’ portrayal of ‘Baroness Tyndale’ played by Penelope Woodman, right down to the handbag!
Of note is Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson, who’s layered performance and outstanding vocals steal the show on more than one occasion. Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick make a wonderful pairing as Jackie and Peggy White bringing sanity to the difficult situation, and when Richard Fleeshman sings as Gideon Fletcher, it’s almost as if Sting has jumped on stage to join in!
The set created by 59 productions is ingenious and emulates well the original Broadway production set, but on a touring scale. We are transported, through the use of multimedia projection, cleverly positioned gauze screens and specially placed wooden boxes from the interior of a house, to the shipyard, to the deck of the immense liner in the blink of an eye.
It is an interesting piece, which with a few tweaks could be made better. You may hear it being described in the same sentence as Billy Elliot, purely by the nature of the time and place of the setting of the respective pieces.
There are indeed similarities, however where Billy Elliot uses the lighter, almost balletic touch to make us think about the ramifications of what we’re seeing on a scale greater than that at the time, this uses the hammer, tongs and rivet gun approach! On several occasions It took my strength not to stand and let the cast know that ‘we get it’!
This is particularly demonstrated with curiously outdated role of ‘Narrator’ who pops up throughout the piece and at the end directly addresses the audience, lecturing us about how ‘powerful and beautiful’ they/we are and how we should stand up and be counted!
Overall a good piece of theatre, though needs a lighter touch to become truly special. Outstanding music and vocals with the harmonies of the company second to none.