The Last Ship (New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham)

Posted: April 19, 2018 in Theatre

Music and lyrics: Sting       Director and book writer: Lorne Campbell

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Who would ever think of launching a show about Geordie shipyard redundancies in New York? Maybe the producers of this new musical believed that the name of Sting as composer/lyricist (and briefly performer) would be enough to guarantee ticket sales. It wasn’t. As a result, this large and very British vessel is tarnished with the label “Broadway flop”, but it is not holed below the water line and the job now is to get it back afloat with the help of glowing reviews and strong word of mouth, ready to sail (hopefully) into the West End. The re-floating process has started well with a sold-out run in its spiritual home, Newcastle, followed by this national tour.

The show is seen here directed by Lorne Campbell, who has also written a new book, based on the original by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. The story has two strands – the closure of the Newlands shipyard on Tyneside, leading to a token act of defiance by its workers, and a love story between Gideon, returning home after 15 years seeking greener pastures, and Meg, the girl left behind carrying their daughter. The love story always feels like an add-on and Campbell does not knit the two stands together completely, but Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee play and sing the roles so beautifully that all resistance is swept away.

The main narrative thread tells of a proud community being threatened with obliteration in the tsunami of de-industrialisation that swept across the United Kingdom from the 1980s onwards. Jackie (Joe McGann) and his supportive wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick) lead the opposition to the yard’s closure. The Government’s case is stated by Baroness Tynedale, who, in a crass misjudgement by Campbell, is played by Penelope Woodman doing a crude Margaret Thatcher impersonation. This is reminiscent of Richard Bean’s abysmal satire of the Wilson Government in Made in Dagenham, a flop musical with many similarities, although The Last Ship is vastly superior to that show in almost every respect. This show would be improved if Campbell were to adhere fully to the principle of telling the human stories and allowing audiences to work out the politics for themselves and Sting, of all people, should know that Socialist drum-beating by multi-millionaire entertainers inevitably becomes tainted by suggestions of hypocrisy.

As director, Campbell needs to do more to enliven several leaden spoken scenes which threaten to sink his ship; as things are, this production demonstrates exactly why so many modern musicals tend to be sung (or rapped) through. So yes, the show still needs more work, but that cannot detract from the songs which are truly glorious, better musically and lyrically than in any new British musical that I can remember. The score is distinctively Sting/Police, but influences ranging from traditional folk to Rodgers and Hammerstein can be detected in passionate anthems and gentle love songs. The singing here, in solos, duets and choruses does full justice to the songs, which often become emotionally overwhelming. As Ellen, the wilful daughter of Gideon and Meg, Katie Moore is just beguiling, but she is only one of a faultless company.

The staging is on a grand scale, with the whole show being performed in front of the shipyard’s high scaffolding. I wish The Last Ship Bon Voyage and hope to see it cruising to the success that it richly deserves.

Performance date: 18 April 2018

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