“What have you got, but the singing in the cables?
Oh, what have you got, but the ringing in your ears?
Aye, what have you got, but the telling of the fables?
And the memories of the ships, that we’ve been building donkey’s years”
What have we got? A corker of a musical, docked proudly in Cardiff Bay!
The Last Ship sails triumphantly into the Donald Gordon Theatre at The Centre this week, carrying a message that is both a love story and a rousing proletariat call-to-arms.
After a choppy start on Broadway in 2014, Sting’s gutsy, folksy, toe-tapping, big-hearted ode to his industrial roots, has returned to its homeland and a tour of the UK. It premiered in March on the Northern Stage in Newcastle, just a few miles from Wallsend, the ship-building town that clung barnacle-like to the towering bulks it toiled to construct; and its message is very clear – for communities still battered by Thatcherite politics, under the austere rule of an elite that operates with callous disregard for the working classes, there can be only one option: to rise up with dignity and in solidarity to change the unacceptable (Parkland students’ rallying fight against gun laws in the US) and to protect our most precious institutions (the vulnerable NHS).
Lorne Campbell’s book and direction reveal strong and earthy characters that do not tip too readily into stereotype. Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) returns after 17 years of wanderlust, with the naïve expectation of rekindling his teenaged love affair with Meg (Frances McNamee). His hopes are dashed when he is met by a fiercely independent business woman, who firmly believes that “a sailor is not a man to be trusted” and a restless 16-year-old daughter, Ellen (the lark-like Katie Moore) who he never knew he had. As these characters battle to establish new relationship boundaries, the shipyard stalls under the shadow of the “Utopia”, a vessel too pricey to sell. Foreman Jackie White (Joe McGann) leads with steely forbearance, he is “as hard as iron plate”, and the men look to him for true north. He in turn looks to his wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick) and this long-standing relationship, grounded in mutual respect and admiration, serves to reflect the loyalty and gratitude felt by the men to their stations. It is a loyalty that is not returned by the yard owner who, with the backing of the government, is allowed to abandon ship. The men have no choice but to do what they know best, and with picket lines fortified by the womenfolk, they decide to complete the construction of the last, vast vessel, so that it may sail away to more prosperous shores.
Fleeshman’s voice is uncannily similar to Sting’s and his portrayal of Gideon is endearing and not overly-schmaltzy. McNamee is vocally outstanding, and she skilfully inhabits the satisfyingly forceful and layered role of Meg. Yard workers are strong in both individual characterisation and in choral work, with incredible, gritty vocals from Kevin Wathen as alcohol-soaked Davey Harrison. Foot-stomping cast members stand shoulder to shoulder on stage with The Last Ship Band, often using the piano as a perch from which to narrate.
59 Production’s jaw-dropping projections are a sight to behold. The rigid set transforms against Turner-esque skies, cranes rise and fall, sparks fly. The “Utopia” stands sentinel-like above the bitter-sweet bustle, obliterating the light yet offering the only route to a brighter future.
The Last Ship celebrates a rich heritage treated poorly. It is a story that must resonate in the mining heartlands of Wales and in the steel-making town of Port Talbot, battling on in hostile global waters with continuing wage and pension insecurity; and just as the cast stands under house lights and acknowledges those fighting now to improve legislation and protect services, this show speaks directly to us about the necessity of being dignified in solidarity. It is a message as pertinent today as it was in the 1970s and 80s.
“What have you got, but the loyalty of brothers?… You’ve got nowt. We’ve got nowt else”
The Last Ship is on at Wales Millennium Centre until 19th May
Images: Pamela Raith Photography