Saturday 10th August 2013, matinée
When we told people we were going to see a musical version of the Titanic story, the usual response was that it must be a parody in the style of ‘Springtime for Hitler’, as though such a disaster could not possibly be an appropriate subject for musical theatre. Thankfully, this is not a bad-taste comedy but a serious attempt to tell this famous story with music, and as the composer of the piece Maury Yeston himself said, ‘It’s the safe sounding shows that often don’t do well’. Written in 1997 by Yeston with a book by Peter Stone, the musical was produced on Broadway on a massive scale, reportedly suffering technical problems with the ship refusing to sink on occasion (you couldn’t make that up!). Knowing the Southwark Playhouse we suspected this wasn’t going to be an issue – they have built their reputation on high quality musical productions, not pyrotechnics.
David Woodhead’s set is realistic but not literal. By including recognisable elements (railings, moveable steps and riveted metal sheeting) we immediately know where we are, but the versatility of the set allows us to imagine the scale and wonder of the ship and forget that we are in a theatre a fraction of the size of it. One of the most effective moments is just the sound of the iceberg grinding along the side of the ship in the silent darkness. Director Thom Southerland makes excellent use of the space. He is particularly good at keeping the pace up, and creating energy and tension which never drops (vital in a story where the ending is the most famous thing about it). In the opening scenes he creates a sense of hustle and bustle as passengers arrive and the ship is loaded up but the clarity of the direction means that we can easily follow the story and characters. There are many inspired moments – having the lookout alone at the top of a moving stairway which is moved in and out of the action as the passengers promenade on the deck; for the final scenes, just a small section of the walkway is hauled up at an angle by members of the cast using ropes to suggest both the sinking of the ship and the desperation of those trying to hang on; at the end, the key characters who have died come to the centre of the stage and leave a single personal effect on the stage before departing in silence, and as the audience leaves, the names of the dead are projected onto the floor.
Producer and casting director Danielle Tarento has assembled a top-notch cast of twenty for this production – the ensemble numbers (of which there were plenty) truly blew us away. We had seen James Hume recently in Quasimodo, where he sang beautifully as Peirre Gringoire the poet. Here he plays first class steward Mr Etches, perfectly encapsulating the high status, unflappable fixer, who is the glue which holds the piece together, one of the few characters who can mix freely with all classes and whose job is only to serve, right until the end. He combines a slightly mischievous humour with a stiff upper-lipped acceptance of his fate to great effect. We had also been impressed by Leo Miles before, in the Royal Academy of Music final year showcase two years ago. Here he shows great versatility with a range of characters and vignettes (including the infuriated passenger who misses the boat), culminating in a haunting performance as the lookout who first spots the iceberg in the song ‘No Moon’. The combination of sweet singing and the growing horror on his face perfectly conveys the tragedy at the heart of the story. As Barrett the stoker, James Austen-Murray is a powerful physical presence with a voice to match, whether whipping up a storm in the imaginatively titled ‘Barrett’s song’, or bringing out the yearning of a long distance love affair in ‘The proposal’. Celia Graham revels in the shallowness of her character Alice Bean, the second class social climber and gossip who is obsessed with hobnobbing with the first class, even in the life-boats, and she gradually fleshes her out as she learns that there may be more important things in life than social status. As Bruce Ismay, the owner of the Titanic, Simon Green avoids the trap of giving us a one-dimensional villain. Instead, he is more like a small child with a toy. Always pleasant, he never has to pull rank because everyone is already eager to please, and, blithely unaware of the consequences, he apportions blame to everyone but himself without a trace of irony. Mathew Crowe gives a subtle and multi-layered performance as Bride, the telegraph operator, a geek who has finally found his niche, allowing the whole world to communicate through him, but still as socially awkward as ever. Ultimately, though, it is down to the versatility and talent of the whole cast that we get a real sense of a ship with hundreds of passengers, each with their own story.
Once again we have been vindicated in our belief (if vindication was needed) that you don’t need spectacle to sell a musical – big sets and effects are just a side-effect of being on Broadway, not an essential part of the show if the source material is good enough. But do we need a musical version of this oft-visited story? Peter Stone has constructed a book which is respectful to the memory of the characters and skilfully avoids cliche by focussing on the humanity and individuality of the people and their relationships, resulting in many fresh insights. Barrett proposes by telegraph to the girl who he hopes will wait for him, and Mr Andrews, the designer of the ship, understands the flaws in his design as the ship goes down, describing the horror which is about to ensue with forensic clarity. The writing is effective and economical, never more so than when the passing of the uneventful first few days is denoted by the repeated sounding of the dinner gong, and the inevitable harassment of the captain by Ismay, demanding to know how far the ship has come. Every scene has a purpose, and we sense that every character is important in this story. Maury Yeston’s music feels almost like a sung-through musical in style – there is great emotional range, and the characters are brought together with duets, choral numbers and interweaving melodies, as well as moments of recitative which are strangely poignant. The music seamlessly pushes the action forward through the characters, and by the end there seemed to us no better way to tell the story. The titanic disaster, just over a century old, continues to capture the public’s imagination. We would like to think that this version will stand the test of time as a sincere and emotionally powerful rendition of the story and a fitting memorial.