Touring – reviewed at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
At twenty to midnight, 106 years to the day after the collision, an audience gathered in this big theatre to mark and remember the disaster. All credit to cast and crew for doing a full production ending at 2.30am, its last curtain call followed by a sober minute’s silence for the seafaring city. Cast and audience together stood facing the memorial to the 1,500 people, passengers and (mainly local) working crew, who died that night. It was a genuinely and gently moving moment.
So after the fascinating Shadow Factory, Southampton gets a second theatrical take on its history with the touring revival of Thom Southerland’s marvellous production of Maury Yeston’s musical. It could hardly have had a more resonant launch than this midnight performance on Saturday. I admired the show two years ago at the little Charing Cross Theatre, surprised at the modesty of its outing (it won Tonys in the US). Now in the big Mayflower, with an expanded but still simple version of David Woodhead’s two-level, white-railinged set and a slightly bigger ensemble, it more than fills the space and emotion of the moment.
I wrote at the time “Stirring, decent, strong”, and that still applies. Yeston uses the human power of a chorale and Peter Stone’s book wisely keeps the devised personal stories – aspirational, ambitious, ambiguous – brief and impressionistic. The choruses intensify the awareness that all classes, roles and responsibilities were, literally, in the same boat. There is a fidelity to the period’s Edwardian style, and also 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.
The pride and astonishment of creating “the biggest moving object on earth” is shared, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes, to the sixty-shilling Irish in third class dreaming of grander lives in the US, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin, again) 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. Philip Rham again is the Captain, and Greg Castiglioni takes over as the designer Andrews from Harland and Wolf , passionately scribbling bulkhead changes which might have saved them, even as he knows it is the end. Simon Green is the arrogant, legend-chasing Ismay from White Star, urging reckless speed, nagging the Captain, never admitting his share of the blame.
Some arias stand out intensely, like the wireless-operator’s hymn to the magical new connection which could have saved them; but it is the choruses, the swirling strings under Mark Aspinall’s direction and the simple honesty of the whole cast’s performances that create – unforgettably on that late night performance – a sense of taking part in what is as much a meditation as a drama. Catch the tour if you can.