Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 6 August 2016
A DREAM AND A DISASTER: TRIBUTE WORTH PAYING
Full disclosure: I really care about the Titanic story, love maritime history, have met one of the last living survivors of the 1912 disaster, and visited exhibitions about it here and in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The rediscovery of bandmaster Hartley’s violin stirred my depths. I was enraged by the dreadful eezi-pleazey James Cameron film, with its catchpenny inverted snobberies and schlocky Winslet-diCaprio rom-com; not to mention the shameful slur on First Officer Murdoch.
So I approached this one with caution. But within ten minutes was head over heels in love with it, not just because of Maury Yeston’s stirring music and lyrics (this man knows how to use the human power of a chorale). It was also because of a kind of fidelity: to the period’s Edwardian style, musical and visual, to its vaulting ambition and belief in a new world of engineering and opportunity, and to the simple fact that on a sea voyage however firm the class distinctions every individual has a right to hopes and dreams.
In a damp sparse midweek matinee (a tricky time at home, one leaps at chances) it blew me away. A bit embarrassing, that, since now two days running two modest new musicals have dazzled me into multiple mice: but after all Yeston’s score and Peter Stone’s book won a hatful of Tonys in the US and great plaudits here three years ago. So it isn’t just me. That director Thom Southerland (who just scored again at Southwark with Grey Gardens) should have brought it home to this cosy spot under Charing Cross station is something to rejoice at: though it seems a pity that a more prestigious theatre didn’t fight for it.
Because it is, I tell you, rather wonderful. Honestly. Go see it. Some very good price tickets.
Yeston says that it was the idea of dreams and ambitions that drove him, and it certainly drives the tremendous opening: David Woodhead’s set of decks, rails and moving companionway is neatly echoed by the little theatre’s balcony rails and retro lampshades, and the company of twenty swarm onto the ship, excitement mounting. Glee and pride and astonishment and thrill shake the house, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes to the sixty-shilling Irish girls in third class running away to a better life, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin) determined to stand next to an Astor or Guggenheim if it kills her, the first-class passengers who are also given their humanity, and the labouring stokers in the engine-room.
The use of big, joyful choruses is tremendous throughout – though individual arias stand out too, notably Matthew Crowe as the nerdy, snooty wireless operator warming into benevolence at the marvel of his dee-dada -dit trade, Alice’s dream of ambition, and several moments of marvellous macho belting from the strong men at the heart of the crisis. Philip Rham is the Captain, Sion Lloyd designer Andrews from the Harland and Wolf shipyard, and the nearest thing to a villain on board is Bruce Ismay (David Bardsley) from the White Star Line.
For under the glee and the exposure – neatly indicated – of private dreams and circumstances among the passengers, musically and verbally throbs always the approaching doom, the reward of hubris. Ismay was determined it should be a six-day ship on the transatlantic route (“even the Krauts can do it”) and urged high speeds and the short, icebound northern route. The others uneasy concern joins icy mist swirling around the bridge, human preoccupations swirling below on a calm moonless final night, the music swelling every few minutes into a great chorus of hope we know is hopeless. We strike the iceberg at the end of the longer first half: the rest is a dramatic foundering, and finally a decently quiet memorial to the 1503 who died, with a sheet of names and the memories of real survivors. Stirring, decent, strong.
Box office: 08444 930 650 to 6 Aug