Book: Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: John Kennedy
An additional irony to the already hubris-laden Titanic tragedy is that its revolutionary design made it the safest ship afloat – which it was. Albeit, immediately up to, but not subsequent to hitting a colossal iceberg at 22 knots – because then, self-evidently, it was neither safe or to remain afloat.
The definitive cinematic account still remains A Night to Remember (1958). The most conspicuous being James Cameron’s – Oscars by the barrow-load, tear-jerker –Titanic (1998). The iconic mise-en-scène where dashing doyenne of the Irish diaspora, upstart parvenu Jack, lends romantic wings to the gushing Rose on the sun-setting prow of the noble vessel is indelibly underscored by My Heart Will Go On. Unforgettable, as is the needling, plaintive Celtic refrain right up to the blub-fest denouement. To create a musical adaptation of such a disaster might be pushing good/bad taste, luck and The Fates to extremes. Operas have had a bash at these sort of challenges – but really, needed to lighten things up a bit. What of ‘Oedipus Rex! An eye-popping song & dance spectacular’ or ‘ Elektra – A family show with lyrics to die for!’. It’s a big ask – one of those chancing your luck, ‘putting out the deckchairs’ moments.
However, even the most wizened of cynics or the justifiably historical pedant might be caressed into submission by this accomplished, intelligent and humane interpretation of that dreadful night’s events. It has an elegiac dignity and shrewd essence of both operatic and operetta momentum. Class, social deference, knowing one’s place segue with thoughtful, often acerbic nuance and gentle wit. Romance blooms for both young and old; till death do they depart with wrenching immediacy. Women and children fade into the auditorium; subsumed within a chorus of poignant, shivering cadence.
Set and costume designer, David Woodhead, in tandem with lighting designer, Howard Hudson, exploit an ever-shifting dynamic of fluidity within the ship’s super-structured space with vibrant urgency. The climatic pitch of the sinking stern with ship designer, the tortured Thomas Andrews, mortified by his (unjustified) complicity in the disaster establishes the production’s conceptual footprint originality firmly on its own terms. Cpt. Smith was notified numerous times of icebergs, ‘The size of the Rock of Gibraltar‘. The look-out in the crow’s-nest didn’t even have a pair of binoculars. That the ship’s officer, William Murdoch, shooting himself remains open to fierce conjecture – James Cameron personally apologised to his surviving family for also portraying this incident. Memories and sensitivities remain ever volatile.
The proscenium arch is framed by muscular riveted panels, seemingly indomitable, impenetrable – the apotheosis of Edwardian technology. This later becomes an ingenious self-referencing tableau. As star-light spills through open rivet-hole voids, the impending iceberg collision drawing on apace, the ominous connection is made that freezing water will imminently burst through them. The original production opened on Broadway some six months prior to Cameron’s film release. Confident and sure of its own conviction and integrity, its damnably difficult not to become near utterly, and forgive the pun, immersed in this show’s sincerity and humanity. Some twenty years hence, it’s evident none of the songs have been troubling Spotify’s streaming capacity lately though this current national tour might just rectify that. The beguiling refrain from Autumn, reprised with poignant empathy, remains ever a ghost of whispering innocence in a cacophony of impending catastrophe. Deservedly recommended; only a heart as cold and unshifting as an iceberg wouldn’t melt to this production’s persuasive authority.
Runs Until 9 June 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander