Touring – reviewed at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There are plenty of memorable tunes to match the high production values of Northern Stage’s The Last Ship.
However, despite having its heart firmly affixed to its sleeve, the production never quite achieves the emotional resonance it so clearly seeks. Sting’s musical – inspired by his Tyneside upbringing – has been considerably retooled since its chequered US outing, with Northern Stage head Lorne Campbell (who also directs) providing a new book.
Gideon Fletcher, who ran away to sea to escape Wallsend, returns to find the shipyard that dominates the community threatened with closure – and his teenage sweetheart Meg unsurprisingly less than keen to pick up where they left off 17 years previously. The two stories of love and industrial decline share several thematic links, not least the way they degenerate into wish-fulfilment in a meandering second half.
The setting seems to be a mid-80s one, soon after the miners’ strike, although this is not always consistent in terms of dialogue. The political content of the show is undoubtedly well-meaning, and anything that highlights the ravages of Thatcherism or the Battle of Orgreave for a new audience must be worthwhile, but there is a distinct lack of subtlety.
Many of the characters on both sides of the dispute are little more than cartoons, despite the efforts of the cast to give them life. Furthermore, the overt consciousness-raising about community action in a show created by a millionaire rock star can certainly come over as awkward or even patronising.
Richard Fleeshman is unsurprisingly much changed from his days as Craig Harris in Coronation Street, but retains an easy charm and tuneful likeability – although his singing voice on this occasion mimics the show’s creator’s rather idiosyncratic accent and diction to an extent that is almost spooky.
Joe McGann gives shipyard foreman Jackie White an upright solidity that makes his story one of stoicism and pathos.
In both cases, however, the male performers are overshadowed by their other halves. Frances McNamee (Meg) has a three-dimensional quality that many of the other parts lack, and has genuine emotional heft in her featured numbers. Her scenes with her daughter Ellen (the similarly impressive Kate Moore) ring more true than anything else on display.
The story is somewhat hamstrung by being about a thoroughly macho world where men are the agents and women merely supporters, and attempts to foreground the female characters are always going to seem an afterthought.
This is most clear in the character of Jackie’s wife Peggy, who is seen largely in relationship to the men around her. She does, however, get a couple of barnstorming routines; Penelope Woodman, stepping into the role on this occasion, does them more than justice with a display of melodic power and enviable commitment.
Parisa Shahmir, Orla Gormley, Frances McNamee, Annie Grace. Pic: Pamela Raith
Other characters – Joe Caffrey’s Marxist shop steward, Kevin Wathen’s disillusioned alcoholic, Charlie Richmond’s poetry-spouting carpenter, Sean Kearns’s unfeeling boss – have every possible nuance wrung out of them by skilful performers, but never rise above stereotypes.
There are echoes of politically-driven musical theatre influenced by The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, as well as emotionally-charged pieces like Brassed Off or Billy Elliot, but in the end there is not enough warmth or internal logic to do justice to either tradition.
This is not helped by a succession of lyrics that lack any real subtlety in their use either of metaphor or exposition. The tunes are a different matter, and the folky, melodeon and fiddle-led band drive the songs with skill – although, sadly, there are no Northumbrian pipes this time around.
There are still too many songs. Both central couples get one more duet than is dramatically necessary – although in Gideon and Meg’s case, they could sing from here to next year’s Hoppings and you still would not believe what happens.
The chorus numbers, however, are simply outstanding, with Richard John’s musical direction and Lucy Hind’s movement direction giving them a combination of rawness and poise. The large cast (which includes Scottish folk and theatre stalwart Annie Grace) are well used by Campbell, and this demonstrates a feeling of community far more effectively than tacked-on political speeches.
The Last Ship projections by 59 Productions. Pic: Pamela Raith
The visual impact is helped greatly by 59 Productions’ design. Anyone who has seen their Festival openers of recent years will not be surprised by the excellent use of projected images, which are aided by an imposing girder-framed stage. Matt Daw’s lighting is similarly atmospheric, although the sound design does suffer from the odd glitch in audibility.
The huge ensemble and thoroughly impressive staging mean that few will complain about getting their money’s worth, and there are plenty of crowd-pleasing moments.
In the end, however, it still seems to be more about Sting working out his ambivalent attitude to his upbringing than anything else. This means that – for all its righteous fury – it remains oddly uninvolving, and seems destined to remain more of a curiosity than anything else.