The Last Ship – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Music and Lyrics: Sting

Book: Lorne Campbell

Director: Lorne Campbell

Reviewer: James Garrington

New musicals as striking as The Last Ship don’t come along very often.

Strictly speaking, this is not a new musical, though – it premiered in 2014 in Chicago before transferring to Broadway for a brief run. Since then it has been reworked, and it’s this new version that’s currently touring the UK – and very good it is, too.

It’s a personal musical inspired by Sting’s childhood in the North East, a place he left when he was 18. Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) chooses to turn his back on the expectation that he will follow his father into the shipyards and instead goes off to sea leaving behind his childhood sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee). He returns 17 years later at a time when things on Tyneside are changing for the worse. The shipyard is under threat – the ship that is almost finished has no buyer and many of the workforce face being laid off. The resulting strike leads to more direct action, while Gideon is faced with surprises and choices of his own to make.

We’ve seen this sort of concept before of course – for example, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty both have similar underlying themes around the decimation of British industry in the 1980s. In this case, though there is no ballet, no stripping, just the realisation that for the men and the community there is nothing apart from shipbuilding. This message is reinforced by a stunning gem of a set designed by 59 Productions, girders and ladders on stage mixed with some striking still and moving projection that shows a town dominated by the cranes and the sides of the ship being built, at times feeling like the walls and watchtowers of a prison trapping the workers inside. This combination of projection and use of gauzes make the whole thing a visual delight and a breathtaking work of wonder.

There are many excellent performances among a strong cast. Joe McGann provides a father figure and voice of calm reason as foreman Jackie White, with Charlie Hardwick also in good form as his strong but caring wife Peggy. Richard Fleeshman’s Gideon is nicely Ill-at-ease when he first returns, before showing a strength of character that seemed lacking when he ran away, all delivered with some slightly husky vocals that add an eerie – though not unpleasant – feel to his singing.

The stand-out performance comes from Frances McNamee as girl-left-behind Meg, with cutting comments and sarcasm covering the pain and hurt she’s felt since Gideon left. McNamee’s vocals are superb, with a mixture of power and tenderness, of strength and of sadness. Katie Moore’s Ellen adds a youthful perspective, like Gideon wanting to escape but this time to go to London with her rock band. There are some interesting cameo performances from Charlie Richmond as Adrian, who keeps dropping literary quotes and allusions into the conversation and Penelope Woodhead as Baroness Tynedale, a thinly-veiled stereotype of Margaret Thatcher complete with blue suit and accent.

The score by Sting contains some excellent choral writing which gives the show an earthy, gritty feel – it’s stirring stuff, rousing and toe-tapping in equal measure. This is combined with a wide variety of musical styles for the solo numbers and duets with ballads and Latin rhythms that all somehow sound traditional and familiar without being stale or overdone.

There is a clear political message of anti-Thatcherism and worker’s unity, and the show even contains references to the miners, brought up to date with a – well-received – plea to save the NHS. The themes may not be original, and the music may have familiar rings, but the Last Shipis a refreshing change from the current crop of revivals and movie spin-offs that seem to be so popular these days. This combination of political message, great music, superb performances, and stunning design could well prove to be a winner.

Runs Until 21 April 2018 and on tour | Image: Pamela Raith

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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