Touring – reviewed at Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool
For the most part, Sting’s The Last Ship is a thing of beauty. The Geordie songwriter/pop megastar has penned a well-crafted salute to the shipbuilders of his native Newcastle Upon Tyne and their industry that has long vanished.
Sting’s roots shine proudly throughout the show. The language is frequently and gloriously in the north eastern vernacular while the melodies, be they balladry or the more rousing ensemble numbers, are anchored firmly in English folk heritage. Think of The Hired Man, fused with Blood Brothers alongside a hint of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and you start to get close to the show’s heartbeat.
It’s hard (nigh, impossible) to write of the plot and remain spoiler-free. Suffice to say, not only is there a solid industrial foundation to the narrative, there is also a cleverly crafted human interest too. Themes of love, ambition along with both a respect for and a challenge to the importance of family and tradition, are well woven into the narrative.
Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick lead the cast as Jackie and Peggy White, shipyard foreman and nurse respectively and both could not be more perfectly cast. Their singing voices may not be the finest, but McGann has a beautifully powerful presence that’s hewn from riveted granite. As he leads his workers in act one’s stirring ‘Shipyard’ number, there is a believable wryness to his delivery that defines him, not only as a leader of men, but also as a shipbuilder with a deeply held a pride in his craft. Peggy is made of the same steel as her husband, but with the additional thread of a perceptively drawn woman’s compassion. We see her not only leading, but caring too.
The story’s romantic theme derives from the school-love that blossomed between Gideon Fletcher and Med Dawson (Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee) and who we meet some 17 years later. Both actors are gifted with some of the show’s more heart-rending numbers, though McNamee leads the women in a gloriously tango-infused routine ‘If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor’.
The portrayal of the industry’s decline is as heartbreaking as it is recognisable. This review was written as the touring production played in Liverpool and there was a resonance to its message that was almost tangible sitting amongst the packed matinee audience in the Playhouse Theatre. Merseyside too has seen its docks and shipyards decimated.
But Sting and Lorne Campbell have pulled their punches with the villain of this piece. Mr Newlands (played by Sean Kearns) is the shipyard owner who, as his business crumbles, resorts to having to call in the police to clear the picketing workers, defiantly attempting to hold on to their livelihoods. He’s clearly the bad guy here, but the real “bad guy” was a far more complex machine of global and local politics and policies that crushed the shipyards along with many other of Britain’s heavy industries. Similarly, in a litany of current “issues” recited before the final bow, its hard to reconcile a reference to gun control in the USA, however fashionable that debate may currently be, with Newcastle shipbuilders stripped of their industrial pride and dignity.
Creatively, the show is cutting-edge in its conception. 59 Productions’ set design makes for an ingenious use of simple girders and clever projections to create illusions that switch seamlessly from present day to backdrop to spiritualised suggestiveness. Lucy Hind has crafted clever and authentic dance work, while in the pit Richard John’s six-piece band makes Sting’s songs soar.
Whether the show will carry its charm into the metropolitan bubble of the M25 is hard to discern, with today’s bloated Londoners being a world away from the harsh industrial axe that fell upon the North. Until then, the tour plays until July and it is well worth catching.