Well I’ve seen some examples of dramatic irony but this one takes the biscuit. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, it’s meant to create a greater sense of tension, or heroism, or humour, or any combination of any number of emotional responses. But I can think of few shows greater than Titanic the Musical where the horror of what lies ahead is so clear to the audience but the characters are blindly oblivious to the danger. When the good ship finally sets sail but one game chap turns up too late, doesn’t get on board, and is furious with himself, not one person in that audience last night didn’t say to themselves “you don’t know how lucky you are.”
There is one character who knows what lies ahead, though: J Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line and therefore owner of the Titanic; in the opening scene we see him ravaged with agony as he looks back at the triumphal launch of the ship, despairing at its complacent captain and self-satisfied designer – a scene which all makes sense when it’s re-enacted at the end of the show, much as the structure of Blood Brothers begins and ends with the death of the Johnston twins, to increase the sense of melodrama. All Ismay can do at the end is look forward to a lifetime of regret; but that’s more than the 1500 people who perished can do. It’s fair to say that this show paints Ismay as a not very likeable man.
So how would you spend your last minutes alive on board a ship like the Titanic, if you knew your number was up and there’s no way out? In desperate sadness? In resigned acceptance? Take your own life first? Crack open a bottle of 1898 Cristal champagne? They’re all options. And what you come away with from this show, is an immense sense of respect for everyone on board, even those whose occasional dereliction of duty may have to some extent caused the disaster. The final scene of the show presents the audience with a wall of names of those who died, and it’s a very moving testament.
But although we all know right from the very start that this story only has one, inexorable, tragic ending, this show tells a far from gloomy story. If you’ve ever gone on a cruise holiday, gentle reader, then you’ll know that almost indescribable sense of excitement, bewilderment and curiosity that is the hallmark of those first few hours at sea, and this show captures that thrilling optimism perfectly. And then you have the main content of the show, the several interweaving threads of the lives of individual passengers, all thrown together arbitrarily simply by virtue of having got on the same ship together. It would be impossible to depict over 2000 lives, so Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s superb music and lyrics present us with just a handful of relationships, from the first, second and third class passengers, as well as the professional relationships of officers and crew. The enduring love affair between Mr and Mrs Straus (first class – owners of Macy’s), the strained relationship between Edgar Beane and his never satisfied, wannabe socialite wife Alice (second class) and the instant cheeky pairing-up of Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell (third class passengers working their way to a better life in America) represent all human life on board, and it works incredibly well.
Technically it’s a relatively simple show, but that means those special effects that are there have a greater impact than you might otherwise expect. The railings at the top end of the ship move upwards as the ship starts to sink, giving an incredibly effective portrayal of a man hanging on for dear life. The appalling graunching sound of the ship ploughing into the side of an iceberg stops us in our tracks and then strong white lights illuminate both the stage and the audience as if to say we’re all in this together and make us feel equally vulnerable as the characters.
Musically I found the show highly entertaining and rewarding, and I felt it gave some nods to a few other shows that are also highly charged with emotion and drama. Apart from the structural framework that aligns it to Blood Brothers, I recognised a lot of The Hired Man in there, not so much in any particular song or scene but in the overall combination of strong individual and clear singing with emotionally charged words and situations, particularly with the third class passengers. Maybe it’s because they share similar themes and both take place in the 1910s. Whilst we’re on the subject of clarity, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where each word was so beautifully enunciated throughout that it achieved an absolute 100% accuracy-to-ear delivery, and for that alone Titanic the Musical deserves an award.
There were some Sweeney Todd nuances too, with Andrews’ pride and joy in his design reminding me of Todd’s affection for his barbers’ razors; and when, facing death, he’s re-designing his blueprint so the ship can’t sink, the music becomes very reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar’s sequence, Take him to Pilate, Take him to Pilate! That reprimanding urgency is also very apparent in the song The Blame, where Captain, owner and architect each point the finger at the other without anyone taking responsibility. You can really imagine that’s exactly how it happened. There was a lot of ambition, power and money at stake. Some important people with big egos playing with other peoples’ lives in order to boost their own fortunes and reputations. You can see it happening in the news today. We never learn.
A large and talented cast bring this story to buzzing life with some superb performances. Simon Green’s Ismay is an immaculate portrayal of a workplace bully, pestering and pestering again until he gets the answer he wants; today he’d be up for corporate manslaughter, coward that he is. At the other end of the power seesaw, Philip Rham’s Captain Edward Smith is a rigid stickler for the old ways of doing things, but torn between his responsibilities for the lives on board and his having to toe the line of his financial paymaster. Constantly showing poor judgment by increasing the speed when he knows it is risky and ignoring iceberg warnings, he’s a complex character given a fascinating portrayal. He really looks the part too – if you ever wondered what happened to the bloke who played The Ghost and Mrs Muir…
There’s a magic partnership between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the genteel older couple who’ve first-classed it through many a sea crossing; I defy you to watch them perform the song Still and maintain you kept a dry eye. I also really enjoyed Matthew McKenna’s performance as Mr Etches, the First Class Steward, who keeps a beautifully ordered table and knows how to smooth the waters (sadly not literally) without upsetting the boat (same observation applies).
There’s a delightful performance from Claire Machin as the socially ambitious Alice Beane – a little like an American Hyacinth Bucket but not as grotesque – I loved how she felt she had to dress up for going into the lifeboats; and Victoria Serra’s Kate McGowan is full of charm and roguish ambition. Great support too from Kieran Brown as the principled Murdoch, Oliver Marshall as the radioman Harold Bride, and Lewis Cornay as both the Bellboy and entertainer Wallace Hartley. Greg Castiglioni gives a brilliant performance as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, worrying away over his plans, trying to keep up with the powerplay between Smith and Ismay; and, possibly best of all, Niall Sheehy is fantastic as Frederick Barrett, the workhorse employed as a stoker, promising to return to marry his girl, and putting the bravest of brave faces on his ultimate fate.
I enjoyed this so much more than I had expected; after the disappointment of Sting’s The Last Ship a few months ago I had an awful feeling that this would be a bad year for anything dramatically nautical. Not a bit of it. This is a powerful, moving, humbling tale immaculately sung throughout. There was a fairly instantaneous standing ovation that I was more than happy to join; and don’t forget to wander down towards the stage after the show to check the names of those who perished. After all, the whole production is done in their honour. After it’s final capsize in Northampton tomorrow, the tour continues to Nottingham, Blackpool, Bromley, Bradford and Liverpool, before enjoying a couple of weeks at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. I’d thoroughly recommend it.
P. S. Overheard at the interval; some people behind us were initially disappointed to realise this was not a musical version of the Leonard di Caprio/Kate Winslet movie. No, it isn’t. Fortunately, it’s good enough for them to have overcome their disappointment, which has to be A Good Thing.
P. P. S. It started a little late and we were anxious to get home so as we could watch the recording of England’s game against Belgium before going to bed. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle noted the majority of musical numbers had already been performed, suggesting that the second act would be considerably shorter than the first (as indeed it is.) Her observation: I guess that shows there is a limit as to how much you can drag the arse out of drowning made me wonder quite how in the zone she was with her sympathies in this show.
Production photos by Scott Rylander