Writer: Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland have joined forces with Southwark Playhouse on three recent occasions and gained great acclaim for breathing fresh life into what were thought to have been problem American musicals. Now, with this fourth effort, they have surpassed themselves.
The original 1997 Broadway production earned five Tonys and a long run, but the problem which could have delayed the UK opening of the show until now is likely to have been connected less with its quality and audience appeal, more with the cost of staging it. The solution offered here is to do away with all the grand sets and special effects and replace them with imagination, thereby putting the focus firmly on the characters, the performances and the music.
There can be few who do not know that the Titanic, an ocean liner described here as “a floating city”, hit an iceberg during its maiden voyage in 1912, causing 1,517 fatalities. The ships’s owner, builder and captain (Simon Green, Greg Castiglioni and Philip Rham, all convincing) are seen arguing as the sailing speed is increased and a riskier course is steered, in pursuit of a record Atlantic crossing time, and then bellowing at each other to point the finger of blame for the resulting catastrophe.
As with all of the many dramatisations of these events, the interest lies in the individual human stories and this version is based on actual characters. The class structure of the age is highlighted strongly, the passengers’ status being defined by their breeding if they were British or their wealth if they were American. The aristocracy and the super rich occupied the upper decks, closest to the lifeboats, while, at the point of disaster, the lowest class were locked in far below them, closest to the rising waters.
On the lower decks, we see immigrants to the US dream of a new life, joining together to voice their aspirations in the song Lady’s Maid and a pair of young lovers, endearingly played by Victoria Serra and Shane McDaid, plan their future together. On the middle decks, an eloping couple (Nadim Naaman and Clare Marlowe, both with crystal-clear voices) duet on the lovely I Give You My Hand and a social climber (Celia Graham) plots her way upwards, deck by deck. At the very top, the passengers dine at the Captain’s table, dance to Doing The Latest Rag and, in the most touching of scenes, an elderly couple (Dudley Rogers and Judith Street) proclaim their undying love, singing Still. Unifying them all, James Hume is excellent as an omnipresent steward.
Maury Yeston’s varied and vibrant score includes many memorable, lush melodies and rousing choruses, all perfectly orchestrated by Ian Weinberger. Peter Stone’s book is, in turns, witty, truthful and poignant, blending naturally with Yeston’s equally fine lyrics. This is exemplified in a splendid scene in which a lowly engineer (an earnest James Austen-Murray) exchanges humorous banter with the ship’s telegraphist (Matthew Crowe, glowing with self-importance) pleading with him to send a proposal of marriage to his girlfriend at home. The banter turns seamlessly into song as one chants The Proposal, the other The Night Was Alive, each in complete harmony with the other.
Simply staged, with a 20-strong company and a six-piece band, the show flows, seemingly effortlessly, being beautifully acted, sung and choreographed throughout. At the end, the audience leaves the theatre by walking across the stage, onto which a list of the names of all the dead is being projected, reaffirming the reality of the tragedy which has just been dramatised. However, on this occasion, it is only the ship that sinks, because this is a musical that floats blissfully on air and often soars.
Runs until 31 August
Photo: Annabel Vere