Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Written by 16 time Grammy winner Sting, The Last Ship is inspired by Sting’s own childhood experiences. The musical marks Sting’s debut as a Broadway composer, with the show premiering at the Neil Simon Theater on 26th October 2014 where it ran for almost three months following a 33 day run at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago.
Set in Wallsend, a small town in Tyne and Wear where rows of tightly packed terrace houses are dwarfed by mountains of steel; the men are hardworking and loyal to their profession. Community life revolves around the shipbuilding industry and the pride which comes from constructing magnificent sea-faring vessels. One young man, Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper) however, yearns to escape the profession laid out by his father and grandfather. Abandoning the love of his life, Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), he returns 15 years later to find her engaged to another man, Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar). The industry too has changed, and is now under threat as the community sits in the grip of de-industrialisation.
Deciding to create a monument once and for all to honour the generations of shipbuilders, Foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) leads a plot to construct one last ship before the shipyard closes for good. It will be a ship to define their very existence; a ship of dreams. A symbol of heritage and dignity as the ship is realised throughout the musical.
The epitome of blue collar pride, he leads the rousing ensemble song ‘Shipyard’ early on in the musical which allows for character introductions, establishing the pride felt in the community at building battleships and cruisers for the Queen, super tankers for Onassis, and everything in between.
Four songs have been recycled from Sting’s previous albums, including the romantic ‘When We Dance’ from Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994, ‘Island of Souls’ and ‘All This Time’ from the 1991 album The Soul Cages and ‘Ghost Story’ from the 1999 Brand New Day.
The Last Ship has a very easy feel to it; sitting somewhere between rock, folk and musical theatre. Jigs and chanteys feature, capturing the very essence of community spirit. It is exciting, and often feel-good, despite the trials faced.
The musical has its fair share of rousing ensemble numbers, including the catchy ‘We’ve Got Now’t Else’ where the men reminisce on the day to day workings of building a ship, the cheerful melody masking the underlying hard truths that all they have, will soon be gone.
Prodigal son Gideon is based on Sting himself, but as a character he is somewhat is difficult to like. As the main protagonist, we want him to be the good guy, but from a purely audio point of view more work is perhaps needed to help us understand his decisions, which follow a vague and unclear path. Perhaps the reasons behind his decisions are meant to be unclear, but if so, we should feel more turmoil and confusion from the character in the narrative. Meg’s fiancé, Arthur (Aaron Lazar) has the stirring love ballad ‘What Say You Meg?’, aching and beautiful in its honesty (reprised by Sting at the end as a bonus track), and Gideon needs his own big number to allow the audience to empathise with him.
Rachel Tucker as Meg is fiery and emotive, her fast paced ‘If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor’ echoing the struggles, anger, bitterness and heartaches of the ones left behind. The song features some beautiful violin, and shows off Tuckers wonderful ability at portraying the victim without being self-pitying.
Orchestrations are pleasing, but could be more powerful in the title track particularly, which is reprised twice. The Last Ship is heartfelt and honest, and hugely personal. It shares the hard truths and realities of the working classes, yet it still feels as though this musical is in its early days, perhaps identifying best as a concept album. It has huge potential, is highly original and has haunting, sentimental melodies and like the raging sea, is full of turbulent emotions.
A working man works, til the industry dies
The Last Ship is available from Universal Music Classics.