magic set

The cast on the brilliant set from 59 Productions dominated by girders like the skeletal prow of a ship.

Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

The Last Ship

The New Alexandra Theatre


Take a magnificent set, quality music, a fine cast and a solid heartfelt story well told and what’s not to like?

Sting has created the best new musical we have seen for quite some time with original songs – none of your juke box raids here – and a story that will resonate with audiences from Longbridge to Corby, Grimethorpe to Belfast, from the cotton mills of Lancashire to the shipyards of Tyneside.

And on the Tyne is Wallsend, Sting’s home town, where the musical is set. It is a tale of industries and jobs left to die leaving social devastation in their wake.

When the consortium who ordered a new ship, the Utopia, collapses, the shipyard owners, unable to quickly find new buyers and with the Government refusing any help, decide the almost completed ship is now more valuable as scrap.

The yard will effectively close with a skeleton workforce breaking her up – on lower rates, of course, to reflect the lower skills needed. A neat and tidy solution on the company books – except the yard is the lifeblood of the people who work there and they are not going to let her die without a fight.

charlie and Joe

Charlie Hardwick as Peggy and Joe McGann as husband Jackie.

Joe McGann is a powerful figure as Jackie White, the moderate, reasonable yard foreman, respected by both men and management, who leads his men into real industrial action – a takeover of the yard. McGann sports a good voice for numbers such as the tragic So to speak as his bleak future is laid out.

Jackie is supported all the way by loyal wife Peggy, a delightful performance from Charlie Hardwick who sings the sad Sail Away quite beautifully.

Union firebrand in all this is Billy, played by Joe Caffrey, an old-style union man, comrades, who finds himself outmanoeuvred, and outdated, by clever lawyers who turn his strike into an illegal trespass, with the Government having no wish for another Battle of Orgreave.

Then there are the workers with the bookish ship’s carpenter Charlie Richmond, played by Adrian Sanderson, who quotes from Dylan Thomas and Homer, to the bafflement of Billy, or Davey Harrison the yard’s resident drunk.

It is a wonderful, slurred, performance from Kevin Wathen, in a singing voice that makes him sound like he could be Joe Cocker’s love child. You will struggle to make out all Davey says through his drunken haze, but there is no mistaking the sentiments of despair, failure and bitterness.

Sean Kearns gives us management in the shape of Freddy Newlands who sees his take it or leave it breakers yard plan as being most reasonable, falling back on the defence that no negotiation is possible as all decisions are out of his hands.

Supporting him is government trade minister Baroness Tynedale, played by Penelope Woodman, and any resemblance to Margaret Thatcher is purely intentional, I suspect.

The scene is set for battle, but Sting runs a second thread through the musical, a conventional love story. Gideon, played by Richard Fleeshman, ran away to sea to avoid going in the ship yard when his dying father offered him his old working boots to wear on his first day in the yard (Dead Man’s Boots).

So off Gideon went, leaving behind the love of his life Meg, played by Frances McNamee, promising to come back to her.

Gideon and Meg

Richard Fleeshman as Gideon and Frances McNamee as Meg

And he does just that . . . only it takes him 17 years, without a word, to keep his promise. He returns, a merchant navy officer, to find his home town in industrial turmoil and Meg, now an independent woman, hardly welcoming him with open arms. Oh, and did we mention he has a daughter he knew nothing about – Ellen, played with a wonderful spirit of youth by Katie Moore - who also sings, with her girls band, the only song that could be described as pop in the show.

There is a charming scene between father and daughter as Gideon tells of the way he and Meg met with the lovely, lilting The night the Pugilist learned how to dance which, with melodeon accompaniment, would not be out of place on a Paris street corner.

Meanwhile the less than impressed Meg makes her feelings known with If you ever see me talking to a sailor.

We know there has to be at least one happy ending though, so the pair share some fine duets such as When We Dance before the smouldering 17-year-old embers burn bright again. Both are good singers with voices that go well together.

The music is a strength, with pretty well every sea themed metaphor you can shake an anchor at in the lyrics, with some fine choral work which we presume is down to orchestrator Rob Mathes and musical director Richard John.

The full cast numbers are a joy of four part harmony and even small groups use harmony to great effect adding layers of depth and richness to the music.

Sting has turned The Last Ship theme song into a foot stamping anthem running through the show like rivets through a hull and there are other chorally strong numbers such as Island of Souls.

A mention to for the band, only five strong, but there are no big orchestral numbers here with music which ranged from folk inspired to tango, the power coming from the excellent ensemble.

A star in its own right is the set from 59 Productions, an industrial landscape of girders and gantries with a video projection of clouds, rooftops, cranes, girders, whatever needed soaring up into the flies – we even get a full stage church interior which, with clever perspective, looks real rather than projected.

Below are scrim blinds which raise and lower when needed to provide lower video walls for interiors, or to allow highlighted moments appearing behind – scene changes at the flick of a switch and the best use of technology in theatre since The Curious Incident. Worth seeing for that set alone, a set enhanced by Matt Daw’s sympathetic lighting.

Producer Karl Sydow, who brought the tour of Dirty Dancing to the stage, costing more than the film did to make, doesn't scrimp on budget, and it shows.

Director Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage, has written a new book from the musical’s US launch version in Chicago and Broadway back in 2014 where it had a mixed reception with a book by established American pair John Logan and Brian Yorkey.

Gone is Meg’s new man and Gideon’s battle to steal her back, for example, simplifying the love story.

It becomes Agitprop – the musical for a few moments in the finale, with even a call to save the NHS, but its heart is in the right place with its message that people matter as much as profit in the face of corporate and political indifference -and that the people are a powerful force - if they work together, they are, well, unstoppable. We've got nowt else as the cast tell us.

And you can’t argue with that, although how that message will go down in the South East remains to be seen.

As a northern lad I had no problems with the Geordie accents, although a few people were struggling a little with it on Press night, but that hardly detracted from what is a powerful, emotional and original musical which brought a well-deserved standing ovation and even had Sting joining the cast on stage for the curtain call. It is a project close to his heart and it shows. It’s personal, political and outstanding theatre. To 21-04-18

Roger Clarke


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