Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse
Tragic in a way that only stories of real life events can be, there is no small amount of hubris on display in this powerful touring production of Titanic the Musical.
Knowing the end of a story isn’t a barrier to finding its drama – otherwise Romeo and Juliet would never be staged. And thanks to a cleverly angled script and some deliciously tense music, the fact that the Titanic is doomed is no barrier to finding drama and tension in the story of its tragedy.
The angle of basing the story on real people, some of whom were among the 711 survivors others among the over 1,500 who were drowned, ensures interest all the way through. Not so much out of morbid curiosity, but in the way their lives are revealed and what it says of life and class at that time and this.
That is a lot of people to represent, however, from the hardworking third-class passengers seeking a new life in America, to well-healed second class passengers – and a disproportionate number of millionaires in first class, keen for the kudos of sitting round the captain’s table on the largest moving object in the world.
Inevitably, Peter Stone’s book is only able to concentrate on a few and there is little scope for creating much depth of characterisation. Maury Yeston’s music helps on that front, however. And while the tunes aren’t so catchy, their flavour is strong, building a solid image of people’s lives.
For all the potential sketchiness to the characters, there are strong individual performances throughout. And in keeping with the nature of a passenger ship where the most important people on board are the least significant in terms of wealth, Lewis Carney as an un-named Bellboy is one of those.
Carney’s Bellboy dominates the flow of the opening scenes, directed with a commendable sense of pace by Thom Southerland. He ensures that moveable items on the set are always available for the bustling cast to wonder at and explore the great new ship. Later, he takes on the role of band leader Wallace Hartley singing Autumn, bringing out the poignant irony of the words as the passengers waltz, and reprised in the finale as the ship goes down.
Also key to the narrative is Henry Etches, the chief first class steward whose guiding hand dominates all the first class ensemble scenes. Played on this instance by Matthew McDonald, he provides an impeccable combination of the courteous and respectful servant who knows, however, how to be in charge of any situation.
Those first class passengers would be nothing if they were not talked about. Fortunately Claire Machin is on hand at gossip Alice Beane, whose comments on the great and good as they board provides just the right level of tittle tattle, and whose attempts to attain the first class dining room provide plenty of gentle comedy.
If the result of the story is known, this turns to the getting there to understand what happened. A trio of responsibility stands at the head of this strand of the musical. Greg Castiglioni as the designer Thomas Andrews, Phillip Rham as Captain Edward Smith and Simon Green as the owner J. Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line.
All three bring a sense of the triumph at the creation of the vessel, but as the production develops, it is Ismay’s drive which brings about the sense of doom. Smith might be ignoring the warnings of ice-burgs and steadily pushing up the speed against Andrews’ advice, but it is under Ismay’s desperate search for a six-day crossing that he operates.
When it comes to the crunch and the brush with the iceberg is surely imminent, this really begins to fizz as a piece of theatre. With Mark Aspinall’s band providing a sensationally tense take on the string-heavy score and the singing moving into a more choral mode, there is a very real sense of dread at what is to come, helped by the contrasting motifs for the passengers and the ships officers.
David Woodhead’s two-level set is simple, but a moveable staircase helps create an almost Escher-like feeling of the extent of the decks. Howard Hudson’s lighting helps move it between the light upper decks and the darkness below. However it feels serviceable rather than sensational.
It is the broad details of people’s deaths that provide the most heartrending moments. The third class locked below decks, unable to escape. People dropping from the rising stern as the vessel sank, falling 250 feet into the sea. The shouts of people dying of hypothermia in the freezing water.
The whole production has a sense of the inevitable to it. Yet, as in Romeo and Juliet when you hope that just this once the Friar will get his message to Romeo, you can’t help hoping, against hope, that one slight thing will be changed and tragedy averted.
A fine and thought provoking work which reminds us that the Titanic is not just a metaphor for size, but also for events which become tragedies because all the warning signs are ignored.